Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Professor Bott and Racism

The Washington Post recently quoted one of my BYU professors, Department of Religion professor Randy Bott.

First, some background. I first took a class from Bott when I was 18. It was a mission prep class, and my friend Aaron was also in the class. I remember a couple of things--the class was large, fun, and easy. Bott told some great missionary stories and gave us some tips on missionary work. I don't remember anything controversial, but I was only 18, and I doubt my critical thinking skills were up to noticing that kind of thing anyway.

Several years later, I needed an easy class to break up an otherwise difficult schedule, so I signed up for another Bott religion class. At some point, Bott when on a rant about environmentalists who support population control. Another student wisely pointed out that the earth would be in trouble if everyone used as many resources as Americans use. I knew the student was right, and was disappointed when Bott dismissed the comment as being untrue.

Years later, a newspaper article praised Bott for being a popular teacher--and I stated my opinion that great students challenge students, something Bott never did. He told fun stories, he counseled some students (especially athletes), and he gave out A's like candy. He never truly challenged his students.

Now, Bott has stated some ideas about reasons for the priesthood ban in a widely read, national newspaper. His ideas are outdated. Numerous general authorities, including Elder McConkie and Elder Holland, have stated that such ideas are wrong. But Elder Bott still holds on to them. The old excuses for banning blacks from the priesthood still live on.

The church, of course, has responded, and quickly.

"The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

So Bott is wrong. We already knew that.

"BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said."

But wait a minute. Bott isn't just a BYU faculty member--he's a member of the BYU Religion Professor. Sounds like a pretty reliable source. He teaches thousands of soon-to-be missionaries about the gospel! He's the most popular professor at BYU!

Point is--if the church doesn't want people like Bott to speak for the church, they shouldn't hire him for BYU's religion department in the first place. His thoughts on the priesthood ban are not secret or new--cached pages from his suddenly-disappeared blog make that clear.

Now that Bott's gone and made a bad name for the church, he needs to be fired. He's past retirement age anyway. But his firing would make clear a few things:

First, the church doesn't employ racists to teach its religion classes.
Second, the church doesn't tolerate religion professors who teach apostasies, regardless of how popular the religion professors are.
Third, the church wishes to separate itself as far as possible from the statements Randy Bott made in the Washington Post.

Fire him. Now. (Or at least get him to resign, now--everyone understands that that's just another word for "fire" anyway). Get someone else to teach his classes for the rest of the semester. Someone who's racist and stupid enough to make those kind of statements to a Washington Post reporter does not belong on the BYU faculty.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Obama, Socialism, Snopes, and a lie-within-a-lie

Several conservative friends have recently posted a story on Facebook about an economics professor who decides to try an experiment with a class and tells them that since they're friends of Obama's socialist plans, he'll use socialism in class: all the students will receive the exact same grade. Of course all the students stop trying and all of them fail the class (even though, in at least one rendition of this story, the professor specifically told them that no one would fail).

This story is so problematic that it's hard to know where to start, but here goes:

1. The story's false. (Thanks, Snopes). In fact, it pre-dates Obama's presidency. The point can still be valid even if the story is false, but it certainly doesn't help the cause when the story is told as if it is true when it isn't.

2. President Obama's "socialism" is nothing like what the professor tried in his class. Not everyone will be equal. It's not even as extreme as we see in 4th Nephi, where, in one of the most righteous societies to ever exist, there were no rich and no poor. Obama wants to increase the middle class--which makes total sense when one realizes that the disparity between the rich and the rest of us is greater than it's been since the Great Depression. Obama seems to want something like Germany and Scandinavia have--basically no poverty, a huge middle class, and some moderately wealthy people. I'm quite familiar with what that means in Germany--plenty of opportunity, a real safety net, and plenty of chances to strike it rich. You might not get that sixteenth mansion, but let's face it--most of the extremely wealthy in the U.S. didn't strike it rich, they were born that way. And it's absolutely wrong when the ultra-rich "make" (or, more likely, watch their investments increase) more in a day than ordinary working families earn all year.

I'm fine with smart, hardworking people making more money than other people. But plenty of hardworking people aren't making enough to get by, or are barely surviving. Most of the lower class and most of the lower-middle class (a group that continues to grow in size) is composed of people with good work ethics. They might not have the same opportunities as the rich have had, but they work hard, and they don't deserve to live in poverty.

The current message from many Republicans seems to be that the current wage gap we have right now--where the rich are ridiculously rich, and the middle class is struggling in the toughest economy since the Great Depression--is perfectly fine. It's not fine. It's disgusting. And it's sad that otherwise intelligent friends have been taken in by this story, this lie-within-a-lie.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Why we should raise taxes on gas

Opponents of public transportation often complain about the subsidies buses, streetcars, and trains receive from the government. Many of these opponents don't realize that roads receive massive subsidies too.

The federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. Given the reality of inflation, that means it's effectively gone down in the last 19 years. These taxes pay for about half of all road construction and upkeep. The other 50% comes from other sources--your pocket. Even if you never use public roads, you still pay for 50% of their costs.

To make this worse, some aspects of tax law encourages companies to drive. A small business owner who drives from Idaho Falls to Boise and back again for business purposes drives about 560 miles. As of the last few months of 2011, she could reduce her income by $311 for making the drive. If she made the trip twice a week, that's $32,344. Say her gross profits in one year are $60,000, she has other business costs of $10,000, and she does all that driving. Her income for federal tax purposes is less than $18,000--but, unless she's driving a major gas guzzler (think Hummer 1) or a sports car, she is in reality holding on to a lot more than $18,000.

If a business owner flies or takes public transportation instead, roads will get used less, less toxic fumes will be spewed into the atmosphere, and yet the business owner can only reduce her income by the actual cost of the transportation.

In addition, employers can get tax breaks for paying for their employees' parking costs, but not for paying for their employees' public transportation costs.

So there's certainly an incentive to drive--the massive subsidy roads receive outside of the gas tax, and a massive reduction of income for tax purposes for small businesses.

No doubt most people drive on roads, and almost everyone profits from goods and services that arrive from roads. So why raise taxes on gasoline instead of continuing to charge everyone for road use?

To put the cost of using roads where it actually belongs. People who use roads more--and people who drive larger vehicles that cause more wear and tear on roads--should be the ones paying for it. This would increase incentives to shorten or eliminate commutes, shift the economy to be more local-driven, decrease the number of gas-guzzlers on the road, and basically create a fairness in the system.

Public transportation would be a much more attractive option.

Our use of gasoline would plummet, and we would be less reliant on unstable gasoline from the Middle East. (By the way, oil reserves in more stable countries are much, much smaller than in the Middle East--no amount of Drill, Baby, Drill within the borders of the U.S. will get us enough oil for our current needs. Why do you think we went into Iraq in the first place?) The less reliant the rest of the world is on gasoline, the less powerful--and less dangerous--the Middle East becomes.

Environmental reasons. Even if you disagree with 98% of the scientists in the field who state that climate change is occurring, clean air is still important. Dirty air causes a multitude of health problems and is just plain nasty. Raising gas taxes would decrease the amount of pollutants and would result in cleaner air.

What about downsides?

Prices will go up, especially on products that have to be transported long distances. But why is it a bad thing if the price of the product reflects its actual price, and not its subsidized-by-taxes price?

Public transportation costs would go up (at least for modes of public transportation that use gasoline). Sure, but it would still be a more cost-effective mode of transportation than driving.

The gas tax wouldn't be 100% effective--vehicles that don't use gasoline wouldn't be taxed for using roads, and gasoline that's used in other places--like lawn mowers--would be charged. Part of this might be a positive result--an incentive for electric cars, for example. And lawn mowers and such make up a very small percentage of gasoline use--and a higher tax on gasoline would be a great incentive for lawn mower makers to create more gas-effective machines. Still, this is the biggest downside I can see--but it's much better than the alternative, which is to let the general public subsidize roads.

Raising taxes is very rarely a popular move. But in this case it makes sense. Will it happen? No. But it should.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Law Office

So, I'm almost up and running.

I've got an office next to Shelley City Hall, a business phone number, a website , an email address, and almost everything else I need to get started.

I'm still waiting on my desk (it's in the mail), internet access (useless to set up before I have a desk, and I'm hoping to find a better deal in the next few days), and, most importantly, clients.

So far, my office is the only one occupied in my building. The office is tiny, but it has a walk-in closet (where I'll put my filing cabinet, which I plan to pick up today, and that already has a built-in bookshelf). It's the first office you see as you come in the front door. Right across from my office is a nice conference room, which I'll share with others in the building. The going price for the office was $200/month, but I talked the landlord down to $150.

Advertising costs are going to be pretty high--there's a weekly newspaper here in Shelley that I'll need to advertise in. I've bought banners to place outside the building, at least for a couple of months, to let people know that I'm there. I'm also joining the local Kiwanis club, offering to give free classes on Wills, etc.

Starting up a business is a lot of work, but it's a lot more fun than looking for a job.

If you know anyone in or near Shelley, send them my way.