Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Republican (and LDS) Fascination with Authoritarianism


I’ve been wondering lately about the obvious fascination both Republicans and Latter-day Saints have with authoritarian figures and whether this has anything to do with the dominance of the GOP among Mormons.

Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have had a love-hate relationship with government. They hate the government but love to be in charge of it. Why? I’m not quite sure, but P. J. O’Rourke’s satirical remark has more truth to it than we would like: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.” Since our government is a democratic republic in form (and in theory), if you hate government, then you must in some way hate the democratic aspects of government, which are often a source of frustration and inefficiency. But if you do not like democracy, then you must prefer some other form of governance. (I’ll resist the temptation here to get sidetracked with Mike Lee’s recent unfortunate tweet.)

Republicans have also been very much a probusiness party. This can be seen in their policies regarding taxation, regulation, unions, health care, use of public lands, and money in politics. And this may provide a clue to answering my query. Almost all businessesfrom small sole proprietorships such as the corner dry cleaner to massive multinational corporations like Apple or ExxonMobil—are authoritarian organizations. Capitalist businesses may resemble monarchies, oligarchies, plutocracies, dictatorships, aristocracies, fiefdoms, or theocracies, but almost never can they be described as democratic republics. Those would be worker-owned enterprises in which the employees are able to choose their leaders, and they are rare. Republicans seem to prefer the more common authoritarian capitalist business model, and prefer it to our democratic constitutional republic, so it makes sense that they would lean authoritarian.

This may also explain why Republicans have often vocally yearned for a president who is also a businessman. How often have we heard the refrain “We need to run government more like a business”? But remember that most businessmen come from sharply authoritarian backgrounds. They are therefore not comfortable with the constraints of a largely democratic system of government. Donald Trump, as the New York Times’s reporting on his tax returns shows, is better at playing a successful businessman on TV than actually succeeding at business. But Donald Trump’s organization is perhaps the most authoritarian type of business possible. He is accountable to no one, not even a token board of directors. And he has no experience at all serving in a democratic republic. It is obvious that he has tried to run the government like he does his businessas an unbridled autocrat who ignores any rule or law that inconveniences him.

The question then is, why are so many Republicans attracted to this sort of governance? What is it in the strongman image that conservatives find so magnetic? Why does a supine GOP Senate bow and scrape before the dictatorial Trump and protect him from the logical consequences of his own unconstitutional and undemocratic actions? Why is Mitt Romney the only Republican Senator with a conscience or a sense of loyalty to truth, decency, and country? I expected little of the GOP after what I saw during the Obama administration, but I certainly expected more than this.

But what about Latter-day Saints? This is a complex picture. Trump’s popularity among Mormons is significantly lower than Romney’s was or Bush’s, but Trump will still carry the state of Utah in the coming election, easily. How is it that so many Latter-day Saints can totally ignore D&C 98:910? “When the wicked rule the people mourn. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.” I don’t care how you slice it, but Donald Trump simply cannot be described as honest, good, or wise. On the other side, Joe Biden, regardless of his faults is considered by almost everyone, including many Republicans he served with in the Senate, as a good and decent man, a man of compassion and faith and principle.

But that will not dissuade a majority of Latter-day Saint voters from casting their lot for the demagogue they have hitched their wagon to. I wonder whether it is the Mormon preference for authoritarian leadership that is partly to blame. Not only is our religion embedded in a top-heavy authoritarian ecclesiastical organization, but whenever we have had the opportunity to create our own temporal government, we have embraced brazen authoritarian models, not the constitutional democratic republic one might expect.

We claim to revere the U.S. Constitution, even spouting scripture that declares it was established by God (see D&C 101:77, 80). But whenever we have had the opportunity, we have totally ignored it, except for a single amendment that guarantees religious liberty. The Constitution, however, is nothing more or less than a document that enshrines the division of power among three separate branches of government. And why this division? To avoid the very type of authoritarianism that Mormons have repeatedly created and that they are now embracing in the body of one Donald J. Trump.

Think about Nauvoo. Not only was Joseph Smith the prophet and president of the Church, but he was also the mayor, the head of the city council, the top brass in the Nauvoo Legion, and, for a time, even postmaster. This concentration of power is one major reason why the Saints’ neighbors were afraid of them. And did our forebears learn anything when they were driven west to the arid Salt Lake Valley? Little. They did produce a legislature, but it was stocked with lawmakers handpicked by Brigham Young, and the territory of Deseret was really nothing more than Brigham’s desert kingdom. Even after Alfred Cumming was installed as token governor in 1858, everyone knew who really ruled the territory.

So, we might as well admit that democracy is simply not in our LDS genes. For a few decades after the Church abandoned plural marriage, communitarian economics, and theocracy, Latter-day Saints tried to assimilate into American society. We became true-blue, flag-waving patriots. But there’s something about democracy that just didn’t stick. Joseph Smith once claimed that the Church was a “theo-democracy,” but in practice that ideal was never realized. As the Church grew under Joseph, so did his control over it. With Brigham, it reached new heights of authoritarianism. We have diluted the law of common consent to the point that it has become nothing more than a perfunctory raise of the hand to ratify everything our leaders propose. We don’t take the scripture in D&C 26:2 literally anymore.

So, perhaps we come by our antidemocratic tilt honestly. We love our big authoritarian businesses, and we apparently love an increasingly authoritarian secular government with no effective checks and balances.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

What Does It Mean to Be Conservative in Today’s Republican Party?

I’m going to quote three “conservatives” in this column. I want you to know this up front so that you don’t mistake them for “liberals.” Jennifer Rubin is a conservative political columnist for the Washington Post. Michael Gerson is an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post who was George W. Bush’s chief speech writer. Stuart Stevens is a Republican political consultant who worked on the election campaigns of four Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney. The question they address, in one form or another, is what it means to be a conservative in today’s Republican Party. Another way to frame this question is, what on earth happened to the Republican Party? I’ll start with Rubin, since she introduces the question most directly.

“Under Trump, the term ‘conservative’ has become almost meaningless, in large part because the party that identifies with conservatism has become a cult of personality extolling whatever position Trump latches upon, no matter how incoherent or repulsive. Good ‘conservatives’ are supposed to believe that family separation is an acceptable border policy, that the Justice Department should serve the president’s political interests and that developing a nationwide testing and tracing program is the responsibility of states, not the federal government (although the feds’ exercise of the police power is necessary).

“‘Conservatism’ now is a chaotic blend of right-wing nationalism, conspiracy theories, plutocratic economics, cronyism, protectionism, realpolitik foreign policy and repudiation of objective reality. When Trump departs, it is far from clear whether it will remain so, revert to pure anti-government libertarianism (which has a small constituency aside from donors and hard-line activists) or morph into something else entirely.”1

In other words, conservatism has become something conservatives from a decade or two ago would not recognize at all, even though they were already on the path that eventually led them to follow a self-absorbed demagogue. Michael Gerson expands on this theme, explaining why, in order to save the conservative movement, Republicans need to lose this next election BIG.

“This is the main reason that Republicans—in the Oval Office, in the Senate, in the House—must lose, and lose decisively. Trump has made national Republicans fully complicit in his revolt against American principles. Party loyalty now consists of defending the indefensible. By the nature of our constitutional order, a firm decision against bigotry is an entry-level commitment of American politics. Trump’s pervasive influence among Republicans has necessitated their repudiation.

“The president is ignorant of America’s history, indifferent to its ideals and blind to the nobility of the political enterprise. For most elected Republicans, the stain of complicity is probably indelible. But a presidential election can be a window—a short window—for recovery and renewal. Assuming our nation still has ambitions higher than the Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”2 This last term refers to an openly racist appeal Trump made this past week to his white supremacist followers who want to keep their neighborhoods segregated.

Stuart Stevens does not just take issue with where the Republican Party has gone; he also takes partial credit for it and explains that the GOP did not begin its long slide from principle with their embrace of Trump. Trump was merely the destination for which they were already heading. Stevens was just too late to see it, so he is trying to make amends now, partly by writing a book that outlines the long slide.

“Reading Mr. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention now is like stumbling across a document from a lost civilization, with its calls for humility, service and compassion. That message couldn’t attract 20 percent in a Republican presidential primary today. If there really was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, we lost.

“There is a collective blame to be shared by those of us who have created the modern Republican Party that has so egregiously betrayed the principles it claimed to represent. My j’accuse [bitter denunciation] is against us all, not a few individuals who were the most egregious.

“How did this happen? How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. What others and I thought were bedrock values turned out to be mere marketing slogans easily replaced.”3

I have been harping on this theme for a long time now. It’s nice to see some conservatives finally agreeing. What they are saying is that the Republican Party bailed on conservative principles long ago, and so now being “conservative” is almost meaningless. When a major political party gives up any serious attempt at policy and opts for sloganeering instead of governing, you get what we have in the GOP today: incompetence, conspiracy theories and quack science instead of expertise, wholesale corruption, and a total disconnect with society’s real needs and concerns (for instance, global warming, racism, economic inequality, affordable health care for all Americans, and, oh, I hear there’s a pandemic going round).

Personally, I don’t think the Republican Party can be saved. Falling in line with Trump was the final nail in the coffin. We do, however, need a conservative party that is right of center (not right off the cliff in wingnut territory), serious about science, more concerned with society’s needs than with holding onto power, and determined to do the hard work of creating workable policy and achieving hard-won compromise on complex issues rather than playing the sort of scorched-earth partisanship that Newt Gingrich ushered in and Mitch McConnell perfected. We need such a party, but I don’t think the current crop of Republicans in Power are capable of this. If I were Republican, I’d start with John Kasich and Mitt Romney and a few others who haven’t drunk the “conservative” Kool-Aid and start from the ground up. Maybe then the “conservatives” might be able to figure out again what it means to be conservative.


1. Jennifer Rubin, “Are You a Conservative? It’s a Trick Question,” Washington Post, July 27, 2020.

2. Michael Gerson, “Trump Has Made Republicans Complicit in His Revolt against American Principles,” Washington Post, July 30, 2020.

3. Stuart Stevens, “We Lost the Battle for the Republican Party’s Souls Long Ago,” New York Times, July 30, 2020.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Gaping Hole in the Church’s Official Policy on Abortion

Several years ago, my high priests group had a lesson on a topic I can’t now recall. But somehow in the course of the discussion, the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage came up. My memory of the discussion is pretty fuzzy, but someone must have asked about the importance of these two issues, because I will never forget the response one of the high priests gave. Let’s call him Mark. Mark answered with a question of his own: “Well, what other issues are there?”
I could have taken the next two hours answering his question, but I didn’t. Mark was a good friend of mine, and he was also my home teacher. But his answer is probably the reason a lot of Latter-day Saints are Republican, even today with their party devoted to a disastrous president and devoid of any serious policy initiatives on our most pressing concerns. For one neighbor of mine, abortion is THE issue. She insists on calling it “infanticide” any chance she gets. I tell her this is like tossing a verbal Molotov cocktail into any conversation, but she insists on flinging it with reckless abandon.
Since I fled the Republican Party years ago and more recently officially became a Democrat, I have more or less avoided the topic of abortion. There were too many other pressing issues that I was more interested in. But recently I have done some reading and thinking about abortion, enough to offer some of my thoughts on this fraught topic. First let me say that it is (as is almost everything) a lot more complex than it might appear at first glance. I brought it up a couple of posts ago, in the context of utilitarianism, but today I want to address it head on, primarily through the lens of the Church’s official position on the topic.
First, let’s be clear that the Church’s position is certainly not the same as the position the Republican Party has gravitated toward in recent years, which is an extremist position the Church certainly could not support, even though many members do (as I’ve said before, many Latter-day Saints are more Republican than Mormon). The Church, for instance, would never publicly label abortion as “infanticide.”
But what most people on either side of this issue do not recognize is that the Church’s official position leaves a gap on which it has not taken a stand. And it is a very sizable gap. Here’s the Church’s official position, copied straight from the Newsroom:
* * *
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.
The Church allows for possible exceptions for its members when:
·         Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or
·         A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or
·         A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
The Church teaches its members that even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct.
The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.
* * *
What does the Church specifically oppose? Elective abortion for personal or social convenience.
It also allows exceptions for rape, incest, the jeopardized health of the mother, and severe defects in the fetus. In other words, abortion is not equivalent to murder. It is certainly not infanticide. There are exceptions, in which other factors weigh more heavily than the life of the unborn fetus. In other words, the Church’s position is not that an unborn fetus is the same as a fully living human being. But I don’t want to focus on the question of when life begins or when the spirit enters the body, although scripture suggests it is not at conception but at birth. I want to focus instead on the large gap between what the Church opposes and the exceptions mentioned.
That hole in the official policy includes a very broad category of abortions that are not covered by the exceptions listed, nor are they for personal or social convenience. They fall somewhere in between. Often they are a matter of the survival or well-being of a struggling family. Take, for instance, the case of a single mother of two elementary-school-age children who is barely scraping by in a minimum-wage job (because she is not qualified for better work). She becomes pregnant—perhaps through her own unwise decision or the passion of the moment, but that is beside the point. Unfortunately, the future father is a deadbeat who disappears from the scene and who, anyway, would not be able to support either her or her children. This leaves her in a predicament. If she has the baby, she will lose her job, her apartment, and, likely, her children. The decision here does not involve an abortion of convenience. It’s the life of the baby vs. the survival of a struggling family. Self-righteous finger-pointers can say she brought this predicament on herself, and that is certainly true, but it does not provide a solution to her predicament. Neither the ultra-conservative pro-life position nor the Church’s official policy has an answer for this situation and hundreds like it.
As I’ve pointed out before, the Church does subscribe to some utilitarian thinking regarding the value of some lives over others. Take Nephi, for instance, when he is standing over Laban’s senseless body with a drawn sword. The Spirit “constrains” him to kill Laban, which would be murder, and it uses a utilitarian argument to justify this action. The death of this one man is outweighed by the need of an entire population to have the scriptural record Laban possesses. So it’s not even one life vs. another life. It is one man’s life vs. the ignorance of many. Of course, as I’ve pointed out previously, this is a false choice. If Nephi had not received the plates, God could have revealed to him anything on those plates that Nephi’s people really needed. Or God could easily have had an angel retrieve the plates and deliver them (like the Liahona) to Lehi in the Valley of Lemuel. So, the story has some inherent flaws in it, but that’s another topic altogether. What’s important here is that LDS scripture insists that it is okay to kill a living man (not an unborn fetus) in order to accomplish a greater good. This seems very relevant to the situation I presented above of the struggling single mother.
In my own opinion, the Church needs to fill the hole in its policy by addressing circumstances that are not “convenience” but also do not involve the exceptions spelled out in the policy. What if it is a horrifying choice between one evil and an even greater evil? Not addressing this choice does not mean it does not exist—in hundreds and thousands of permutations that fall very short of “convenience.” Perhaps this is the best argument for a pro-choice position: There are countless circumstances in which the abortion is not for “convenience” and yet is also not due to rape, incest, the health of the mother, or severe fetal defects. Perhaps this is why such weighty decisions should be left in the hands of the mother, the doctor, and maybe the clergy. These circumstances are far too numerous and too individual for a blanket law that prohibits an act that may be more morally defensible than Nephi’s slaying of Laban.
As I suggested above, abortion is a lot more complex than many on the extremes would make it, and the Church has managed to oversimplify the issue by ignoring this gaping hole in middle of its policy.

Monday, June 29, 2020

An Open Letter to My Republican Friends

The election that is just over four months away is certainly the most important election in any of our lifetimes. I know that politics is a very divisive subject and that both feelings and loyalties run deep. But I would ask you to consider the reasons I give below for voting the current administration and its enablers out of office.
First, it is a matter of life and death for many Americans, and I am not engaging in hyperbole here. I am being very literal. Let’s look at a few numbers. As of Sunday, June 28, 2020, according to Worldometer, there have been 502,539 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Of those deaths, 128,211 have occurred in the United States. What that means is that the U.S., with 4.2 percent of the world’s population (328.2 million), has experienced 25.5 percent of the world’s deaths. By comparison, let’s look at a few other countries:
Germany: population, 83 million (1.1%); deaths, 9,026 (1.8%)
Canada: population, 37.6 million (0.5%); deaths, 8,516 (1.7%)
Denmark: population, 5.8 million (0.07%); deaths, 604 (0.12%)
Switzerland: population, 8.6 million (0.11%); deaths, 1,962 (0.39%)
Sweden: population, 10.2 million (0.13%); deaths, 5,280 (1.1%)
Japan: population, 126.5 million (1.6%); deaths, 971 (0.19%)
New Zealand: population, 4.9 million (0.06%); deaths, 22 (0.004%)
South Korea: population, 51.6 million (0.66%); deaths, 282 (0.06%)
Taiwan: population, 23.8 million (0.3%); deaths, 7 (0.0014%)
There are certainly countries that have intentionally underreported their deaths, likely Russia and China among them. And there are many Third World countries where reporting is probably limited due to lack of resources. But the countries listed above are probably reporting as reliably as they can, although U.S. numbers are certainly underreported. There are also other countries that are performing poorly. Brazil, for instance, with 209.5 million residents (2.7%), has reported 57,149 deaths (11.4%). I can’t help but wonder if Brazil’s rising death total has something to do with the fact that our South American neighbor has a Trump-like president who has been leading a coronavirus denial movement in Brazil. If you add the two countries’ totals together, Brazil and the United States have 6.9 percent of the world’s population but have experienced 36.9 percent of the world’s reported coronavirus deaths.
One study from Columbia University has indicated that if the U.S. had responded just two weeks earlier, we would have saved 54,000 lives. But during this time, Trump was more concerned about the stock market and how it would affect his re-election chances than about the lives of the citizens he was elected to serve. Denial and baseless happy talk were the order of the day. When he finally came around to recognizing the severity of the situation, he reluctantly called for social-distancing guidelines but did not call for the sort of testing and contact tracing that would have enabled us to shut down the virus as many more prepared nations have done. He left that up to the states, who did not have the resources to put such testing and contact tracing into effect quickly and ended up competing against each other for necessary supplies. What Trump did do was conduct daily press briefings that looked more like campaign events, at which he rambled on and on, often spouting nonsense, while the medical experts stood uncomfortably behind him and tried to keep from cringing. He finally stopped this charade when his advisors convinced him they were damaging his re-election prospects. Eventually, after his own administration had issued guidelines for reopening the economy, Trump was the head cheerleader for states to actually ignore those guidelines and open prematurely. We are now experiencing the results of this recklessness. Those states that ignored Trump are still on a downward slope in new cases and deaths. States that jumped in with both feet, as it were, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and South Carolina, are experiencing a massive surge in cases and hospitalizations. Arizona’s numbers, in fact, exceed Brazil’s. The experts have been telling us all along that in order to save the economy, we first have to contain the virus. Trump has tried to do it backward, and the results are looking disastrous. Essentially, his words and example have led to counterproductive behavior on the part of many Americans.
So let’s talk about masks. I’m sure some of my Republican friends could cite fringe studies showing that mask-wearing doesn’t have much of an effect one way or the other. But almost all the evidence points to the benefits of masking up. Let’s be honest. It is virtually impossible to conduct a randomized, controlled trial (RCT) on wearing face masks. And, as the Salt Lake Tribune’s excellent COVID reporter Andy Larsen pointed out, it would probably be unethical to ask a control group to not wear masks. So we have to look at other evidence, such as the case trends in states with mask directives as opposed to the trends in states without such directives. The trends, not surprisingly, go in opposite directions. Because of the mounting evidence, the medical profession is almost unanimously behind the wearing of masks. But you won’t find Trump wearing one or encouraging his rally attendees to wear them. Consequently, the wearing of masks has turned into a partisan issue. Like global warming, it never should have been.
I am moving my 95-year-old father from rehab into assisted living this week. He fell and broke his hip four weeks ago. In preparation for this move, my wife and I took our masks and ventured out to Walmart to buy several items he would need. I was saddened and rather uneasy to see that about 70 percent of the shoppers at Walmart were not wearing masks. And this was one day after Utah set a record for new COVID-19 cases. I know there are many reasons why people do not wear masks in public, but a lot of them are political and partisan. I’ve even heard people say, “The government has no right to tell me what to do.” This is stupid on an order of magnitude I can’t even describe. I suspect these same folks would not go out and protest the government-imposed speed limit in the school zone in their neighborhood. Nor would they drive 60 miles per hour through the zone when the warning lights are flashing. But they are perfectly willing to give me a dose of the coronavirus as I do some necessary shopping at Walmart. For some, it’s just an inconvenience. I have no patience for those who, like Trump, place their own perceived needs above everyone else’s.
The pandemic, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg with this president. But it is the most visible evidence that he is monumentally unfit to occupy the White House, as a growing number of his former administration officials are testifying (or writing books about). Anyone who votes for him is voting for another four years of incompetence on a grand scale and corruption like we have never seen in an administration. After eight virtually scandal-free years of No-Drama Obama, with Trump we have seen one major scandal after another, interspersed with an endless parade of minor outrages. Whether insulting our allies, sucking up to brutal dictators, waging trade wars that have decimated U.S. farmers, locking refugees in cages, politicizing the Department of Justice, rolling back pollution regulations, filing a lawsuit that would end health-care protections for people with pre-existing conditions, illegally diverting Pentagon funds to build a needless wall that Mexico was going to pay for (LOL), asking foreign governments to help him get re-elected, profiteering off his office, or using the military to attack peaceful protesters, Donald Trump has been a disastrous president, uninterested in acquiring the knowledge he needs or trusting the experts who have that knowledge in order to make difficult decisions.
But there are other reasons for voting both Trump and his enablers out of office. First among them is to save the Republican Party, if that is even possible at this late date. I am a Democrat, but I used to be a Republican, before the party took a hard right turn and went off the cliff. Although I do not agree with many conservative principles, I do see the need for a strong conservative party based on those principles. That party started to go astray 40 years ago when Reagan became enthralled with supply-side economics, and it has gone further astray over time as it has become the alternative-facts party, the science denial party, the economic fantasy party, the cruelty party, and the not-so-subtly racist and xenophobic party.
Republicans, I want you to ask yourselves what your party’s solutions are for health care. Ask yourselves how many Germans or Swiss or Danes or Japanese or South Koreans or New Zealanders, or Italians lost their health insurance due to the pandemic. The answer, of course, is zero. But how many Americans did? One estimate is 27 million. Add this to the 28 million who already did not have health insurance and you get a pretty frightening picture about how “exceptional” America really is. And if Trump’s lawsuit succeeds, some estimate that another 30 million people with pre-existing conditions will lose their insurance. All that Republicans have to offer in return is the argument that Medicare for All would cost too much. But if every other developed country on earth can offer health care to 100 percent of its citizens, why can’t we? And they do it at half the cost of our “system” and get better results.
This leads, of course, to one of the most popular bogeyman the Republicans trot out every so often: socialism. Socialized medicine is just the first step on the path to Venezuela or Cuba! I’ve heard this countless times. Interesting, isn’t it, though, how socialized medicine did not lead to communism for Germany or Norway or Japan or Great Britain or South Korea or any of the other countries that enjoy full and less-expensive health care. In fact, my German friends consider themselves far more free in terms of acquiring needed health care than we Americans are with our employer-based, provider-network-restricted, for-profit system of carefully orchestrated care denial. But since Joe Biden will certainly be accused of caving in to the socialists in his party, let’s talk about socialism.
A story might help put this discussion in a realistic context. Back in 1984, five years before the Berlin Wall came down, my wife and I ventured into communist East Berlin one summer day. We saw people standing in lines a block long to buy produce. We purchased a very unappetizing lunch at a state-run cafeteria. We stopped at an ice cream shop on Unter den Linden and found they were out of almost everything on the menu by 4:00 in the afternoon. We tried to spend our obligatory 50 Ostmarks at the largest department store in East Berlin (each visitor was required to exchange 25 Westmarks for 25 Ostmarks at the border, even though the Ostmark had a fraction of the Westmark’s value); we failed to find anything we wanted, except a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. The majority of our 50 Ostmarks we exchanged back into Westmarks when we left, but at the real exchange rate. We watched poorly built Trabants motor loudly up and down the streets of East Berlin, belching out foul fumes. Soldiers with automatic weapons were everywhere. The buildings were rundown, many of them still boasting bullet holes from the war that had ended almost 40 years before. Needless to say, we were not impressed with communism, and we were extremely happy to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We ate at a small Slavic restaurant in Neukölln that evening, and I can still remember how ecstatic I was that my salad came complete with cucumbers and tomatoes. I could never have gotten a salad like that in the East, I exclaimed.
But the contrast here was not between communism and capitalism. It was a contrast between communism and socialism. For Germany in the 1980s was what Republicans would consider a socialist country, and it still is today. The problem here is a naïve and simplistic view of economic systems. In reality, there is not some monolithic system called capitalism. There are actually a variety of forms we could call capitalism, although pure capitalism (where all members of society are capitalists) does not yet exist. What we have are economies that fall along a spectrum between pure capitalism and socialism. We have various aspects of socialism in America: street maintenance, police and fire protection, public education, and Social Security, to name a few. And nobody (at least nobody in their right mind) would want to privatize all these functions of civilized society and turn them over to the capitalists. Nobody, including the most rapacious and cutthroat business, wants a purely free market. Without consistent and sensible government regulations, the free market would break down in short order. So don’t fall for the right-wing fear-mongering about “Socialism!” There are instead many forms of hybrid capitalism-socialism. Germany’s particular recipe, for instance, is more socialist than ours is, and it happens to function a lot better in giving its citizens a prosperous and secure life. Germany has a strong economy with a trade surplus, but with less inequality and less debt.
Republicans are all in favor of the health insurance industry. But have they ever considered the principle upon which insurance operates? Basically, you have a large pool of people who pay monthly premiums (although often their employers pay the lion’s share). You also have a smaller number of people in any given month who require expensive medical procedures or treatments. It’s all a numbers game. Insurance companies calculate the risks based on past experience and current trends and set their rates accordingly. And they always factor in a percentage of profit as well as enough to cover all their administrative expenses. The underlying principle of so-called socialized medicine is the same. Except you have a much larger pool, and “premiums” are paid through taxes. Usually, in insurance, the larger the pool, the better. But in the case of government-run or -regulated health care, you don’t factor in any profit, and administrative costs are significantly lower. This is why other countries can offer better-quality health care to everyone in their countries at a significantly lower cost than we pay in America. Yes, there are imperfections in any system, and the Republicans always look for stories to illustrate how bad socialized medicine is. But name one developed country whose citizens would vote to replace their system with ours.
One of Trump’s main claims for re-electing him is that he created the “greatest economy” this country has ever seen. But this is simply not true. Trump rode the coattails of the Obama recovery from the Great Recession, and if you look at the numbers for Trump’s first three years and Obama’s last three, they are very comparable, except that Obama had consistently decreasing deficits, while Trump’s have consistently increased. We never did see the growth rates Trump boasted he would produce. According to Forbes magazine, GDP growth during Trump’s first three years was slightly lower than during Obama’s last three years. Other metrics show similar results. And Trump’s numbers benefit from a totally unneeded tax cut for the wealthy that added trillions to the national debt and did not increase business investment as Trump promised. Instead, they bought their own stock back. And yet for some reason, Americans overall think Trump would do better with the economy than Biden. This is perception based on baseless bragging and misinformation.
Of course, now that the economy has tanked because of the coronavirus (and America’s economy will certainly not rebound as fast as other countries that took appropriate measures to control the outbreak), Trump does not have even a relatively healthy economy to run on. He has pushed states to open prematurely, and now we are caught not in a second wave, but in an extended first wave that other countries are not experiencing. If you look at a comparison of Europe and Canada to the U.S., you can see how utterly irresponsible our response has been, especially in the red states that opened far too quickly and carelessly, including Utah. This chart produced for Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column illustrates the difference.

Trump has always placed his own interests ahead of the country’s, and this is simply more proof that it is the wrong approach. Trump is so desperate for an economic rebound to boost his re-election bid that he has failed to understand that you can’t have an economic recovery without controlling the virus first. He also does not understand that in a crisis like this, you score political points by doing the responsible thing, even if it is painful, and not by being overly and narcissistically aggressive. The polls bear this out. But is Trump capable of learning from experience? Or from evidence? No. If we put him in the White House for four more years, we are asking for a similar response to any other disaster that comes along. We can’t afford this.
I haven’t mentioned the Black Lives Matter protests, and I will not go into any detail on this topic other than to say that here also Trump is so wildly out of tune with what this country needs that he is simply showing his true colors, which lean racist and authoritarian. I would ask Republicans to consider this question: Which party attracts white supremacists and why? The answer is not pleasant, but it needs to be thoroughly examined and remedied.
Another question Republicans need to ask themselves is why their party is so involved in both extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression, particularly suppressing the votes of people of color. Since the conservative-leaning Supreme Court disemboweled the Voting Right Act of 1965 under the specious excuse that it’s no longer needed, several Republican-led states have done everything they can to keep minorities from voting. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts puts it, “With the Act out of the way, Republicans have unleashed an explosion of measures—purges, shutdown of early voting, attacks on absentee ballots, closure of polling places—all putatively to fight voter fraud. But in fixing a problem that doesn’t exist, the GOP, not accidentally, created one that is very real, making voting an endurance test for people of color. African Americans now wait longer to vote, have fewer places to do so and face more obstacles along the way than they have in 55 years.” Pitts continues, “Kentucky was never covered by the Act, but perhaps should have been based on its recent primary. The state closed almost all of its nearly 3,700 polling places, leaving voters with just 170, supposedly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Louisville, a city of 620,000 people, nearly one in four of them black, had just one polling place.” (See Pitts’s column here.) If a political party is secure in the relevance, appeal, and correctness of its message and policies, it would broadcast these widely and trust that their appeal would convince voters to embrace them. But if a party has to resort to voter suppression to win elections, it says worlds about its policies and its message.
As I mentioned up front, the 2020 election is the most important in any of our lives. You can be as partisan and tribal as you want and try to somehow persuade yourself that Trump is the “lesser of two evils,” but on almost any metric, this is absurd. If you value human decency, moral character, honesty, modesty, or compassion, Biden comes out way ahead. If you care about the earth and are concerned about global warming and pollution, you simply cannot vote for Trump. If you want a health-care system that includes all Americans and costs less than what we currently endure, you cannot vote Republican. If you want sensible gun laws (the kind the GOP supported until recent years), you have to vote for Biden (and no, “they” are not coming to take your guns awaythat’s another piece of convenient propaganda). If you value the Constitution, you cannot vote for Trump, who has undermined and attacked it almost unceasingly, probing here and there for ways to turn our system of balanced power into an autocratic system that satisfies his dictatorial instincts. With a compliant Senate, the firing of five inspector generals, and the politicizing of the Department of Justice, Trump has shown exactly how to undermine the Constitution. He wraps himself in the flag, but he is the most anti-American president imaginable. We cannot afford to embrace unaccountable power for four more years.
Another bit of propaganda you’ll hear from right-wing sources is that Joe Biden is old and mentally incapacitated in some way. They’ll play clips of him making some gaffe or garbling a sentence. Joe has always been a gaffe machine and has never been all that glib. But do the honest thing and look up a video of him giving a speech or granting an interview or participating in a townhall. You’ll find that he’s perfectly capable of stringing together lots of coherent sentences, something that Trump has trouble with. He understands the issues and can speak intelligently on them.
A recent survey offered some unsurprising information. Republicans, it found, largely trust only one news source: Fox News, which has a long track record of producing disinformation. Democrats, by contrast, generally trust five or six news sources. If you are getting your information solely from Fox News and right-wing radio and blogs, stop it. The Germans in the 1930s were deceived by the Goebbels propaganda machine. They had no choice, unless they, like the young Latter-day Saint Helmuth Hübener, surreptitiously listened to BBC broadcasts. But we have a choice today. Please choose to follow numerous unbiased or minimally biased news sources. Get enough information that you can see the truth.
And please consider that it is not enough to just not vote for Trump or his enablers. His defeat must be so convincing that the Republican Party will be forced to disavow everything he is and has done to undermine conservatism. In other words, you must vote Democrat. Perhaps it will be only this once. That is fine. But simply not voting for anyone, or writing in Ann Romney, is insufficient. In this case, silence is complicity. You owe it to the future of your country and your party to send this demagogue packing. Don’t be just another of his enablers. Don’t be on the wrong side of history, because history is not going to be kind to Donald Trump and his supporters.
I’ll close with the words of conservative columnist David Brooks: “I know a lot of people aren’t excited about him, but I thank God that Joe Biden is going to be nominated by the Democratic Party. He came to public life when it wasn’t about performing your zeal, it was about crafting coalitions and legislating. He exudes a spirit that is about empathy and friendship not animosity and canceling.”

Thursday, June 4, 2020

More on Utilitarianism

Following up on a previous post, let’s look at utilitarianism in the Book of Mormon. It rears its head in the first few chapters of the book. As you recall, Nephi and his brothers have been sent back to Jerusalem from the valley of Lemuel to get a record preserved on plates of brass from an important man named Laban. After trying unsuccessfully to talk Laban out of the plates and then losing the family fortune in an attempt to purchase them, Nephi goes off at night on his own, led by the Spirit, he says. As he comes near the house of Laban, he finds a man passed out on the ground from drinking too much wine. Nephi recognizes the drunkard as Laban. He draws Laban’s sword and admires it. And then he says he is “constrained by the Spirit” to kill Laban. Nephi recoils from this command, but the Spirit insists, offering him various rationales to justify this cold-blooded murder, including the idea that “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring about his righteous purposes” (1 Ne.4:13). The only problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it isn’t the Lord who is going to kill Laban, which he certainly could have done. But no, that is Nephi’s job.
It is at this point that the Spirit resorts to a purely utilitarian argument: “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (v. 13). This is an exercise in weighing two negatives: one man’s death versus the unbelief of an entire nation. And, according to the Spirit, the price of one man’s life (especially a creep like Laban) is nothing compared to the unbelief of a thousand years of Nephites and Lamanites.
But I would suggest that this is just as much a false choice as the one we’re facing now: economic pain versus tens of thousands of preventable deaths from COVID-19. God, being God, certainly has the power to do any number of things to totally erase this awful choice. First, he could simply send an angel in the middle of the night, cause poor Zoram to fall asleep, and have the angel take the brass plates and deliver them to Lehi’s tent. Why deliver the Liahona this way but not the brass plates? This would solve the problem of Lehi’s posterity perishing in ignorance without having to dispatch Laban to the spirit world. Yes, there would be an uproar in Jerusalem, and the mystery would never be solved, but it would be chalked up to a fine case of grand larceny. Second, God himself could cause Laban to die, perhaps of a heart attack or a stroke, thus sparing Nephi both the guilt of taking a defenseless man’s life and also the problem of having to wear Laban’s blood-stained clothes and explain how they got so messy around the collar. Third, over the years God could reveal to the Nephite prophets all the necessary information that was on the brass plates. We have accounts in the Book of Mormon where prophets recite at great length the words of God and angels. It’s a false statement that Lehi’s descendants would have perished in unbelief without the brass plates. They were obviously capable of receiving new revelation. In fact, they were apparently much better at it than we are now.
So, this utilitarian choice is not the dilemma the Spirit claims it is. Which brings up the question of why it’s there in the book. Does God really believe in utilitarianism? Is that what morality boils down to? Choosing to produce the greater overall good or avoid the greater overall suffering? Or was this simply Nephi’s own head trying to interpret a difficult situation? Or was there some other reason why God wanted Nephi to kill Laban? Just to test his obedience? An Abrahamic test perhaps? But for Nephi there was no ram in the thicket. No sudden heart attack to prevent him from having to commit murder. Or maybe it was just that the eldest daughter of Ishmael needed a husband, and this was the only way to get Zoram to join the party.
Much ink has been spilled over this little story, trying to explain why Nephi was justified in committing murder. But the whole mess could have easily been sidestepped if God had just delivered the plates to Lehi’s tent.
There’s also the question of why God doesn’t provide “brass plates” for all of his children. Certainly there have been numerous nations that have “perished in unbelief” because they didn’t have the word of God. Why were they not given a record like the one Nephi stole?
The questions surrounding this little episode are seemingly endless. But one of the most troubling is why the Spirit gave Nephi a utilitarian choiceor at least offered him a utilitarian solution to a difficult dilemma.
As for us, well, if we had better leadership and had prepared better, we wouldn’t be facing this awful utilitarian dilemma. We could have been like South Korea or Taiwan or even Japan. Mitt Romney was right on target in reminding us that we have nothing to be proud of. We blew it, and so we now have a president and some utilitarian protesters (the ones protesting the stay-at-home directives) who are pressuring us to cut off Laban’s head.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Remembering Pvt. Amos Franklin Terry Jr. on Memorial Day 2020

The beginnings of Memorial Day are a bit confused. Apparently, the May holiday began as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, three years after the conclusion of the Civil War as a time to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.” Cities in both the north and the south, however, claim to have begun celebrating Memorial Day in 1866. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1966, declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday and its celebration was also moved from May 30 to the last Monday of May.
Although we decorate the graves of our deceased loved ones on Memorial Day, it is significant that this holiday was created to remember those who gave their lives protecting our nation and our freedoms. To my knowledge, I have only one relative who died during any of America’s major conflicts, but strangely he was not killed in action. My father served in World War II, arriving in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge. He, of course, survived the war unharmed, stayed for part of the occupation, then returned home to graduate from college on the GI Bill, marry, and start a family. He is now 95 years old, definitely a member of the Greatest Generation. Yesterday we visited him and took him to the North Ogden Cemetery, where we placed flowers on my mother’s grave and the graves of a few of her ancestors. It was her family that settled the rocky bench in North Ogden in the nineteenth century, the place where I grew up.
Today, my sister, who has recently retired and moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Hurricane, Utah, visited the graves of our father’s parents and a few of his siblings who are buried in southern Utah in Washington, St. George, and Enterprise. She left flowers in Enterprise on the grave of an uncle neither of us ever knew, our dad’s older brother, Amos.
In December 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Amos told his parents that he had enlisted in the military. “I joined the army to help my Country in a time of need,” he wrote to them in a letter. One thing he had said to them some time earlier troubled them greatly, however. “I feel like I will meet my death by murder.” After completing his basic training, Amos was apparently stationed near Blythe, California, in 1943. Blythe is due north of Yuma, Arizona, and east of Palm Springs. It has a hot desert climate with scorching summers and mild winters. Amos wrote to his parents regularly from Blythe, while they were serving a temple mission in the St. George Temple, until, at some unspecified time, the letters suddenly stopped. This worried his parents. In the meantime, my dad was also inducted into the army, having turned 18 in April 1943.
In summer 1943, Frank and Eunetta Terry received a letter dated July 12, 1943, from LeRoy Radford, commanding officer of Battery A in the 195th Field Artillery Battalion, informing them that their son, Private Amos F. Terry, 19011982, was “absent from his organization without proper authority.” In other words, he was AWOL. Radford assumed he had deserted while the company was on maneuvers in the desert. My grandfather wrote Lt. Radford, letting him know that Amos would have never deserted, so he must be the victim of foul play. In August, Radford responded that “your son is missing and not dead. That he has merely become divorced from the Military Service by his own action.”
My grandparents were convinced this was not the case, and, although they were very poor, they traveled to California to search the area where Amos had gone missing. They didn’t find anything. But on February 26, 1944, a young man named David Mott, who was hunting rabbits about four miles north and a little west of Blythe, found the skeleton of a soldier. The remains were identified by the tags that were still in his clothing as Pvt. Amos F. Terry. He had died from a gunshot wound that entered his skull a little above and behind the right ear and exited near his left eye. According to the coroner, his head had been beaten after he had been shot.
After much trouble, the remains were shipped by rail to Modena in Southern Utah, where they were met by my dad, who had been sent home from Ft. Riley, Kansas, to accompany his brother’s body to Enterprise, where he was buried. My dad then returned to Ft. Riley before being shipped overseas.
Some time after the funeral, my grandparents traveled to California again because the army was trying to deny them Amos’s back pay. While there, they tried to learn more about how Amos had died. They spoke with the district attorney, who told them, according to my grandfather’s account, “Mr and Mrs Terry We know enough about murder to know that your son was not killed on the spot where his remains were found and we know enough about murder to know that he was not shot from close up.” My grandfather also recorded this: “On this trip to California we had stopped for lunch at a Café[.] A Young man eating by my side upon learning the nature of my trip informed me that the day before seven soldiers (7) were brought in there that had been found in the desert all had been shot in the head I also was told of Eleven (11) others who were found on a knol almost Covered in sand all shot in the head[.] No doubt some of those branded with desertion to swell the ranks of the California armys AWOL list (Be it here known that I can only state these matters as they were told me) True or untrue I know not. but the weight of evidence and suspicion seems heavily to prove that some one was sabatogeing on our boys in the army and in the seldom traversed desert region.” Grandpa recalled hearing on the radio some time before Amos’s disappearance that more soldiers deserted in California than in the rest of the army combined. He now wondered how many of them had merely disappeared in the desert with a bullet hole in their skulls.
Grandpa’s personal history also recounts the following: “We did much correspondance with various branches of the military also with our sons Buddies in the army And this we learned from the boys who were his close chums That Amos Franks superior officers had for months heaped upon him many unreasonably difficult tasks after long days of endurance tests in the deserts and upon this particular night They had come into Camp after mid night and sargeant Chauncy B Creason ordered him to take cary a heavy machine gun and its equipment over a mountain and set it up. Amos Frank Jr Feeling this to be an unreasonable request said ‘I will take a light truck and another man and we will set it up,’ The Sargeant replied ‘No you go alone Understand. No one with you’ Did he want to get him alone to murder him or not why not be reasonable you answer? To Carry this load our son felt he could not and he replied ‘Sargeant you know that this is an unreasonable request’ The sargeant replied ‘Terry Ill deal with you’ And our son was immediately put under arrest[.]
“The next morning our son was missing and the sargeant was the first man on the ground to announce that ‘Terry was missing’ This information from one Sanford A Perry a buddy to Amos Frank Jr The two being the Champion Boxers in the army they often Put on Boxing exibitions. From appearances Amos was dealt with.”
My grandfather tried to get the military to investigate his son’s murder, but they had a war to prosecute and didn’t seem very enthused to look into incidents like these. So my grandparents never learned what had happened to their oldest son. I’m sure the heartbreak lasted until they died, Frank in 1967 and Eunetta in 1968.
So today, Memorial Day, some 77 years after Amos’s murder while serving in the U.S. Army in California, I am thinking about the uncle I never knew, the only relative I know of who died during a war, but he was not killed in action. He was murdered, perhaps by his commanding officer. His death was never investigated.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Real Miracle Drug?

For many years now I’ve been doing an experiment with a drug that seems to have an effect on a coronavirus. No, not that coronavirus. And no, not hydroxychloroquine. Not even remdesivir. Years ago, my dad shared with me an old home remedy to help knock out the common cold. Here’s what you do. As soon as you get that odd feeling in the back of your throat, like you’ve got a cold coming on, start taking aspirin. I’ve tried this for many years now, and I can say with complete confidence that it workssometimes, and with varying degrees of success.
In fact, I’m doing the experiment again right now. On Wednesday of this week, my wife came down with a sore throat. No fever, just a sore throat. She went in Thursday and got tested for covid-19. The results haven’t come back yet. And on Thursday, I started feeling that slight raw feeling in the back of my throat. No pain yet, just that odd feeling that tells me I’ve got a virus trying to take up residence. So I started taking aspirin. I generally take two regular-strength tablets with each meal, sometimes just breakfast and dinner, but this time I went with two in the morning, one at lunch, and two at dinner. So far, so good.
Long experience has taught me that if this is the common cold, things could go one of three ways. Sometimes the aspirin actually knocks the cold out before it gets its claws set. At other times I still get symptoms, but they are mild and fade away after maybe three days. And then sometimes the aspirin has no effect at all, and I get the full-blown illness—a sore throat that turns into awful sinuses and finally settles in my chest as a nasty cough. But I’d say that at least half the time the aspirin regimen has a definite effect of either preventing the cold or minimizing the symptoms in both severity and duration. Of course, if what we’ve got is covid-19, then we’re in not-quite uncharted waters. More on that in a minute.
I started looking into aspirin and viruses this week, and it turns out there’s actually science to back up my experimental results. Scientists have done experiments with aspirin and have found that it has the ability to inhibit the replication of certain viruses. Here’s a link to one study. The aim of the study is summarized as follows: “Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) has been used for more than 115 years in medicine. Research exists to show that aspirin has antiviral effects in vitro, for example, by blocking influenza virus propagation . . . when used at high concentrations and short-term incubation steps. The aim of this study was to confirm the antiviral activity of aspirin against influenza virus and further elucidate the activity of aspirin against other respiratory viruses.” The results of the study are summarized here: “Aspirin was found to be highly effective against influenza H1N1 virus. The antiviral activity against further respiratory RNA viruses was less distinct. Respiratory syncytial virus was minimally inhibited. However, the activity of aspirin against rhinoviruses was more pronounced. Aspirin demonstrated antiviral activity against all human rhinoviruses (HRV), but the effect on members of the ‘major group’ viruses, namely HRV14 and HRV39, was greater than on those of the ‘minor group’ viruses, namely HRV1A and HRV2.” Again, this was an in vitro (in the test tube) study, but the study’s conclusion states: “These data demonstrate a specific antiviral activity of aspirin against influenza A virus and HRV. The mode of action against rhinoviruses is still unknown and requires further investigation, as does the possibility of aspirin being effective in vivo [in an organism] to treat the common cold.”
So there. I’m not crazy after all. But I’ve wondered why the results of my personal experiments have varied so much. I figure there are two likely reasons. First it probably depends on which virus I’m infected with. There are up to 200 viruses that cause what we commonly call the common cold, among them rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. So, I assume that some of these viruses are more susceptible to aspirin than others. Second, it probably also depends on how early I start taking aspirin. This is all about “load factor.” If I take the aspirin when there is not much virus present, then I can probably buy my body time to produce antibodies to attack the virus. If my body produces enough while I’m suppressing the virus with aspirin, it wins, either really quickly or relatively soon. If the viral load is too heavy, my body probably can’t catch up for a while.
So, does this mean that aspirin may have some positive effect in inhibiting the novel coronavirus that causes covid-19? Well, very likely. Another study (you can find it here) is underway. Results expected in June. It is exploring the potency of aspirin against the novel coronavirus. The researchers are hopeful, however, as evidenced by this summary statement: “The early use of aspirin in covid-19 patients, which has the effects of inhibiting virus replication, anti-platelet aggregation, anti-inflammatory and anti-lung injury, is expected to reduce the incidence of severe and critical patients, shorten the length of hospital duration and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular complications.” Those are pretty optimistic expectations, especially coming from scientists.
So, forget hydroxychloroquine. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Opening the Economy, Utilitarianism, Abortion, and Our Pressing Ethical Project

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is, surprisingly, a textbook: The Fundamentals of Ethics, by Russ Shafer-Landau, a professor of philosophy at the University of WisconsinMadison. In this book, the author explores a variety of moral theorieshedonism, desire theory, religion, natural law, psychological and ethical egoism, consequentialism, Kantian perspectives, social contract theory, ethical pluralism, virtue ethics, feminist ethics, ethical relativism, and moral nihilism―and examines both the appealing aspects of these theories and their inadequacies. What surprised me was that human ethicists have failed to come up with a moral theory that does not encounter dilemmas sufficient to prevent it from being universally applicable. I guess we could say that life is complicated. Moral dilemmas are everywhere, and no theory deals with them all effectively.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus has highlighted some of the moral dilemmas that undermine ethical theories. Perhaps the one theory that has been pushed to center stage more than others by COVID-19 is utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism. Utilitarianism, according to John Stuart Mill, one of its most famous proponents, requires us to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people or, conversely, to minimize suffering.
Utilitarianism is a popular framework most people use in making sometimes difficult decisions, but it does have serious drawbacks. Let me illustrate with the current predicament facing most states in America as well as the Trump administration. Both sides of the “open the economy” debate are using utilitarian arguments. On the one side, the medical professionals and those who believe them are mostly arguing that keeping social distancing in place and issuing stay-at-home orders will create the greatest long-term good for the country and prevent the most harm, epidemiologically and economically. They are arguing that opening up the economy without sufficient testing and contact tracing will not only cause a spike in deaths in the short term and may overwhelm our hospitals, but also that the economic pain will be greater in the long run. Trump, some state governors, and a smallish wave of vocal protesters are arguing that “the cure is worse than the illness,” that the greatest damage is being done by shutting down the economy. In short, the price of x number of deaths is smaller than the economic suffering of the masses.
This disagreement brings to light some of the weaknesses of utilitarianism. First, how do we measure well-being or suffering? If we cannot measure them, we cannot be sure that we are maximizing well-being or minimizing suffering. How do we compare the pain of a lost job or a lost house with the death of a loved one? Second, how can we know what the long-term results of our current actions will be? Utilitarianism defines morality by the results it produces. But if we cannot accurately know those results for many years, how can we be sure what is moral and what is not? Third, how do we define “good.” Good can have many definitions. For instance, we may consider health to be good, but we may also consider economic prosperity to be good. But what if two manifestations of good are in conflict with each other or, in present circumstances, may be mutually exclusive? There are other challenges to utilitarianism, but one problem most of us face is that we apply utilitarianism selectively.
For instance, consider one popular hypothetical dilemma for utilitarianism. Is it moral to take the life of one healthy individual to preserve the lives of five dying people who need organ transplants? This seems rather straightforward. We can come fairly close to measuring the good here. Five lives preserved versus one lost. The math seems conclusive. But how many of us would really vote to take this action? Especially if the one life to be sacrificed is the life of a family member. And yet this is quite analogous to the current “open the economy” argument. If we open the economy (or get back to normal, as Trump puts it) without sufficient testing and contact tracing (which, despite Trump’s claims, his administration has failed to produce), more people will certainly die than if we don’t open it. But the economic well-being of millions, so the argument goes, outweighs the preventable deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
This is a difficult moral dilemma. Which is why we should probably not apply utilitarian thinking to it. If it is wrong to kill one person to save the lives of five others, why should it be right to kill tens of thousands to preserve the livelihoods of millions―particularly when that outcome is far from certain? We must base our reasoning on something more ethically sound than the morally shifting foundation of consequentialism. And we can’t just choose to apply utilitarian thinking in some situations but not others. We must at least aim for consistency.
You have probably been wondering what the decision to open the economy has to do with abortion. Well, quite a lot, actually. By and large, it is the far right wing of the Republican Party that is pushing for opening the economy prematurely, and on purely utilitarian grounds. “Give me liberty or give me death” we see on protest posters. But perhaps their slogan should be “Give me liberty and give them death.” Basically, “my liberty is more important than your death.” Or “my economic prospects are more important than your death.” But this same standard is not applied by conservatives to abortion.
I have a neighbor who loves to insist that abortion is “infanticide.” Obviously, the Church offers a more nuanced view. Although Church leaders never give an example of a justified abortion, their policies indicate that certain circumstances do allow it: rape, incest, and the health of the mother, for instance. So abortion is not an absolute evil that must be shunned in every instance. It is very easy to see the Church’s position as utilitarian: sometimes greater overall damage could result from a birth than from ending the life of a fetus. Which opens the door to other potentially exculpatory circumstances. What if, for instance, a single mother with two young children is barely squeaking by. She has no health insurance. She is working at a low-paying job with no maternity leave and can barely make rent and put food on the table. Then, despite her efforts at birth control, she becomes pregnant. The father-to-be is a deadbeat and cannot provide any assistance. If she has the baby―and, of course, she can’t afford the cost of the birth itself―she will also lose her job, her apartment, and will likely end up homeless. Government assistance will be insufficient to tide her over until the baby is old enough to place into childcare, which she can’t afford anyway. If we look at this situation from a strictly utilitarian point of view, the least harm to human life (and economic survival) would arguably be accomplished by an abortion.
This hypothetical scenario is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unrealistic. In fact, it points a reproving finger at the Republican Party, which has been accused of espousing the belief that life begins at conception and ends at birth. If there were a real social safety net for such individuals, then perhaps the GOP’s rigid stand on abortion would be more palatable, but the party has fought tooth and nail for years to deny such individuals an adequate safety net. So why not apply the same utilitarian thinking to this situation that is being applied to the COVID-19 dilemma? I have no answer.
Since the Church already acknowledges a utilitarian approach to some situations regarding abortion, why not other equally compelling ones? Who is to be the arbiter of this very individualized utilitarian decision? Blanket rules simply cannot cover all the possible situations. The only reasonable answer, therefore, is to leave this awful decision in the hands of the mother (and father, if present) and the doctor. No abortion decision is an easy one, but in a utilitarian framework, at least there is some consistency between this decision and other equally perplexing judgments, such as the choice between opening the economy (and thereby causing more deaths) and keeping stay-at-home directives in place and suffering grim economic consequences.
But I am not arguing for utilitarianism to solve either the abortion dilemma or the COVID-19 quandary. Utilitarianism, as a solution to such difficult issues, is certainly a Swiss-cheese panacea. It has too many holes in it.
I am no ethicist or moral philosopher, but if I read Shafer-Landau’s exploration of ethics correctly, perhaps there is no moral theory that is expansive enough to guide us in these difficult dilemmas. But there is at least one moral philosophy that falls far short of providing ethical guidelines to almost any ethical quandary. Unfortunately, it is the moral philosophy espoused unwittingly by our floundering president, Donald Trump. It is called psychological egoism, “which tells us that there is only one thing that motivates human beings: self-interest.”1 Almost every statement Trump makes and almost every action he takes is guided by a careful calculus that determines “what’s best for Donald?” This is why the staggering number of deaths we have endured does not seem to strike any sympathetic chord in Trump’s heart. They are mere numbers to be spun in such a way as to convince Trump’s followers that his administration has handled the pandemic in an exemplary manner. The pandemic is all about Trump’s reelection possibilities, which is why he has turned pandemic news briefings into political rallies and why he is so desperate to open the economy without having provided for the testing and contact tracing that might make such a move sensible. But the numbers don’t lie. They will damn him in the history books if not in the upcoming election.
Using psychological egoism as the guiding moral philosophy for making life-and-death decisions in a time of global pandemic is as senseless as applying a football playbook to the choreographing of a ballet. But a good many of those who are protesting the stay-at-home orders are indeed following Trump’s moral theory. It’s all about self-interest. No sacrifice for the greater good. It’s all about them. And for some, it’s about the notion that the government has no right, they say, to tell them what to do with their lives. This is raw egoism, which is far inferior to even utilitarianism.
So, how have other countries dealt with this moral dilemma? The ones that have succeeded (and I highlighted a couple in my last post) have actually defused this dilemma by being competent. With timely and adequate testing and contact tracing, they have both halted the spread of the virus and minimized the damage to the economy. By being prepared, they are not faced with the moral dilemma our incompetence has created for America.
But our incompetence is not simply a product of Trump’s fragile egoism. Yes, he has contributed significantly to the problem, but a brilliant article by Ed Yong that appeared recently in The Atlantic summarizes a full range of causes eloquently: “The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.”2
If Yong is correct, our ethical and moral failings are both numerous and longstanding. And finding a solution to the coronavirus is only part of the much larger ethical reconstruction project we must undertake if we are to create a better country on the other side of this awful pandemic.
1. Russ Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 89.
2. Ed Yong, “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing,” The Atlantic, April 29, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/pandemic-confusing-uncertainty/610819/.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Donald Trump, MD

There is nothing Donald Trump likes more than being in front of television cameras, except maybe being in front of thousands of his groupies at political rallies, where he can say anything he wants to and people will cheer. Why anyone would enjoy sitting and listening to someone brag about himself (untruthfully most of the time) is a question for another day. But since public gatherings are verboten, Trump has to settle for his daily coronavirus “briefings,” which have turned into a bizarre collision of reality TV and political campaigning.
Most politicians in similar circumstances would allow the scientists and medical experts to give the briefings. Not Trump. This is free publicity, and he simply cannot resist the chance to try to look important. Unfortunately for him, these briefings have turned into quite a fiasco for the president. As the weeks have passed and the death toll has mounted, the briefings have morphed from Trump trying to convince voters that he has handled the pandemic excellently to him insisting that we need to open the economy prematurely to him promoting a miracle cure (hydroxychloroquine) to him spouting abject nonsense (wondering aloud about the possibility injecting disinfectants). None of this, of course, should surprise anyone. Nor should the fact that his administration’s handling of the pandemic has been one long, horrific train wreck.
As I write, the total global death toll from COVID-19 is 204,274. The data is incomplete from many countries, but this number represents the confirmed and reported deaths from the novel coronavirus. Deaths of Americans number 54,256. To put this in perspective, the United States has a population of around 328.2 million. World population is about 7.8 billion. In other words, the U.S. is home to 4.2 percent of the world’s inhabitants. But we currently have experienced 26.6 percent of the world’s coronavirus fatalities. The numbers don’t lie. The U.S. government has handled this pandemic in an incredibly incompetent manner. By comparison, South Korea has only 242 deaths. South Korea has 51.6 million inhabitants, which is .66 percent of the world’s population. They have experienced .11 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths. Taiwan has 23.8 million residents, or .31 percent of the world’s population. They have experienced 6 deaths. Yes, 6, which translates into a minuscule .00003 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths.
What is the difference? Well, there are several factors, but first among them is the fact that these countries (and others in Asia) were ready for the virus and took it seriously very early on. They had learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003. Taiwan had a fully operational national health command center and immediately took steps to control the spread of the virus. Next, testing and tracking were handled expertly. Their leaders also were more concerned about the health of their people than in how the pandemic would reflect upon them.
By comparison, the pandemic has revealed the Trump administration to be exactly what it is: a pathetic mixture of incompetence, political posturing, and blame evasion. Yes, the U.S. did not prepare well for this after the SARS scare or the H1N1 outbreak. But exactly five years before the current pandemic, President Obama warned of just such a potential disaster and pleaded with Congress to take the necessary steps, because, he said, this is not a partisan issue. This obviously didn’t happen. But even though Trump has sought to blame his predecessor (as he does for just about everything), most of the blame must fall on Donald Trump. When he was first warned about the virus and the danger it presented, he was more concerned about his reelection prospects and the stock market than about the human lives early action could have spared. His deflections and empty assurances are well documented and should never be forgotten.
But in addition to Trump’s senseless delays, we must add his administration’s complete failure to provide for adequate testing and tracking of the active cases. As is only appropriate, Trump’s administration was caught with its pants down. And when this failure became all too obvious, what did Trump do? He punted. It’s up to the states to do the testing and to get their own supplies. And so we have a mad scramble with states bidding against states for scarce commodities instead of having a coordinated national plan. The contrast between America and the countries that dealt expertly with the pandemic could not be starker in this regard. So, here we are, nearing the end of April, and we still don’t have enough swabs or reagents to test adequately enough to “open the economy” safely, even though Trump is chomping at the bit to do just that and some of his Republican governors are throwing caution to the wind. But opening the economy without adequate testing and tracking is just an invitation to see a spike in new infections and deaths.
Of course, Trump gives his administration an A+ grade for its handling of the pandemic, but the numbers alone reveal the truth about that lie. Instead of competent leadership, what we get every day is two hours of Trump offering up “miracle” cures, empty hopes, and, now, dangerous nonsense. The pandemic briefings have gotten so monstrously idiotic that Trump’s aides and advisors (whatever that term even means to such a self-absorbed bore) are worried that he is damaging his reelection chances with his obnoxious, self-centered performances. Yes, this is still all about Trump, not about the tens of thousands of Americans who have died, usually without having family members present. But if he does stop the daily coronavirus carnival, it will not be because he wants to let the real experts speak, but because his sad act is hurting his reelection campaign.
Personally, I’m torn. I would love to see him go hide somewhere and just shut upand stop tweeting. Maybe he will, but I doubt he can resist the allure of the spotlight for more than a day or two. On the other hand, part of me wants him to continue with his “briefings,” but only because they let everyone who watches see just what a disaster he is as a president, as a leader, and as a human being. I am sure that his aides are correct. If he keeps dominating the briefings, he will lose the election, which would be the only silver lining on this particularly dark cloud.
Have you noticed that Trump has not once even tried to be our Consoler in Chief? Do you remember Obama singing “Amazing Grace” after one terrible massacre and weeping on camera for the victims of another? Do you remember George W. Bush after 9/11? Do you remember Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing? These were appropriate responses to horrific disasters, but these calamities pale in comparison to the steady carnage of this pandemic. Yet Trump has no consoling words for a devastated nation. He still thinks only of himself, of optics. How pathetic.
What I cannot believe is that there are still so many Republicans who support this massively unfit president who has been revealed by the smallest of organisms to be the smallest man to ever occupy that great office.
I placed the letters MD after Trump’s name in the title to this post. Although he fancies himself to be a medical expert, those letters do not stand for medical doctor. They stand for moronic demagogue, or perhaps moral disaster. Both are accurate. Take your pick. But please, don’t vote for this utterly contemptible man in November.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

What to Do with the Money?

We live in strange times. Here we were, cruising along, living under the delusion that our economic prosperity was invincible. But in a few short weeks, a simple viruswhich may or may not even be complex enough to be considered a living thinghas brought the world economy to its knees. In the past two weeks, a staggering 10 million American workers have applied for unemployment benefits. And we have not hit the peak of the pandemic yet. The economic pain will increase drastically before it decreases.
But as Paul Krugman pointed out in his column this week, this is not a normal economic contraction. It’s more as if we have intentionally induced an economic coma in order to save society and as many of its members as possible. This is the effect of the unfortunately named “social distancing” we are practicing and the stay-at-home orders from government.
Krugman also points out another difference between this economic contraction and a “normal” recession: it affects some sectors of the economy dramatically, while other sectors are booming, and still others are seemingly untouched, although if the coma lasts long enough, eventually all sectors will likely feel the pain. The industries that are most affected are those based on dense public patronage: restaurants, airlines, educational institutions, sporting events, movies, theaters, concerts, conferences, amusement parks. Many retail establishments are closing or offering curbside service only. Other industries, however, are seeing the opposite effect. Grocery stores, teleconferencing, ecommerce, digital media, and, of course, some aspects of health care are seeing increased activity. And then there are those organizations and industries that are largely unaffected by the pandemic.
For the moment, I am in one of those organizations. I work for BYU as editorial director at BYU Studies, a scholarly Mormon studies journal, but even though the university is largely deserted, trying to offer course instruction online, BYU Studies is still chugging along, trying to pull together another quarterly journal. We have always been mostly unaffected by the university’s academic calendar, and the pandemic did not change this. Some of my colleagues have been working from home. Our student programmers and interns are mostly working remotely, some even out of state. But three of us have been showing up nearly every day, doing our work as usual. Even if Utah implemented a stay-at-home directive, going to work at the Joseph F. Smith Building at BYU would be pretty much the same as staying home. For one of my coworkers, it would probably be safer, because she has kids running around her house. BYU Studies has a fairly spacious office suite. The three of us work in different rooms. The large building is pretty much empty. It is rare to see anyone in the hallways. There is hand sanitizer everywhere. Student custodial employees come around periodically and disinfect doorknobs and countertops. I feel as safe there as at home. So I will likely continue to drive in to work until I’m required to do otherwise.
The other aspect of my job that makes it far different from many others in our pandemic-stricken economy is that I don’t worry about getting a paycheck. BYU is not going out of business, and it is backed by a church with massive reserves of wealth. So my paycheck is not likely to be in jeopardy during this economic contraction. My wife, on the other hand, tutors math in our home, so her income has taken a hit, but we can still live comfortably on my salary, so we are not hurting.
What I am getting at here is that my wife and I, and many others in our current macroeconomic predicament, do not need the money Uncle Sam is planning to send our way soon. I am also just a few years away from retirement. I have a very adequate pension from DMBA, as well as a 401(k) that I have been feeding for quite a few years now, so I don’t need any extra money for retirement either. Because of this, I feel particularly fortunate. But I also feel a bit guilty. My wife and I will probably get $2,400 from the government in relief money. We don’t need it, and we have talked about this and have decided we should give the money somehow to those who have been sucked into the economic vacuum created by COVID-19. The question is how. I’ve entertained the idea of going to restaurants and dropping $100 tips on the employees. But even though I’m sure most of them could use the help, they are actually working and still getting paid. So maybe that’s not the best idea.
I’m sure there are better ways to pass this relief money along to those who most need the relief. So I’m asking you for help. Are you aware of channels through which we can get this government windfall into the right hands? Who needs it most, and how can we make sure it gets to them? I’m sure you have good ideas I haven’t thought of.
The other reason I bring up my own financial situation is that there are many in our society who are in the same boat my wife and I are in. Many people are still employed, as I am, and many are retired and are living on pensions or retirement funds that are little affected by the employment crisis. I would hope that most of these people will do what my wife and I are planning to do.
It’s obviously too difficult for the federal government to distinguish between those workers who are financially secure and those who aren’t. They’ve set some arbitrary upper income limits to the relief payments, but beneath those limits are many like me who don’t need the money we’ll be receiving. So, really, it’s up to us to make this program work for the greatest good. And isn’t that what being members of a society is all about?