Sunday, September 28, 2008

Blogging the Wasteland [Bryan]

IV. Death by Water
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Bryan comments: Traditionally, this beautiful section is understood to point to the bleakness of human life: there is no resurrection or regeneration, just bones and nothingness. I take this bleakness, however, to apply only to a particular type of human life. Namely, to a life concerned only with "profit and loss" and obsessed with material gain. The lust for wealth engulfs us, just as the sea engulfs Phlebas.

The looming specter of Death ensures that the world of "profit and loss" is quickly forgotten; the daily count of gold and silver is without larger meaning and thus easily exposed as ephemeral. As the drowned Phlebas rots, his bones are "picked in whispers" and it seems that a different voice, a voice other than profit and loss, now begins to stir his bones. The whispers and the subsequent "whirlpool" turn our thoughts to the cycle of life. They point to the "stages of age and youth" when different priorities might have been present: the simple joys of childhood perhaps, or to the thoughtful reflections of an old man. The whispers tell us to see our lives as a whole. They remind us to not forget our dreams as children and to avoid the regrets of old age. The whispers that pick the bones of Plebas point us beyond the wasteland.

[T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, is one of my favorite pieces of poetry. I've decided I want to blog about it occasionally, more for my own amusement, perhaps, than for anything else. I think the deeply spiritual nature of the poem is not fully understood -- something I hope to remedy in my own mind. I begin with the fourth section.]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Case for Obama [Bryan]

Here are my top five reasons:

#1 Foreign policy
For me the biggest policy reason to vote for Obama is foreign policy, since that is where a president makes a real difference. Obama's plans for the "renewal of American diplomacy" are fairly detailed and, for me, offer a welcome change from both Bush and McCain. I like that Obama is willing to sit down with both friends and enemies, just like Ronald Reagan did. At the same time, Obama isn't a naive dreamer; he has a strong realist streak that differentiates him from the previous administration and from McCain's "national greatness" neo-conservatism. In other words, Obama knows that there are real dangers out there, but he sees concentrated multilateralism as the best way to address those dangers. Moreover, Obama enjoys immense popularity abroad. By a margin of 46 percent to 27 percent, a recent BBC poll of foreigners said his election as president would "fundamentally change" their perception of the United States for the better. Obama could do much to help to restore the image of America in the rest of the world. This would increase American "soft power" and allow for greater cooperation on issues like terrorism and global warming

Obama's plans for a renewal of diplomacy
Obama as a foreign policy realist (Zakaria)
Obama's diplomatic strategy endorsed by Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, James Baker and Henry Kissinger
Obama's potential "soft power"
McCain's general inclination for military solutions over diplomacy (Yglesias)

#2 Obama's intellect and character
Obama hardly ever seems to get angry or lose his cool, even when people are freaking out around him. In his policy speeches and books, it is interesting that he always tries to be fair to the other side. He has a first-class intellect. In his best speeches, he is able to put a problem within its larger context. He makes connections between different events and is able to see things from different perspectives. Here I am thinking about his brilliant speech on race "A More Perfect Union" and his perceptive 2002 speech against the Iraq War -- both speeches he wrote himself. People who have worked with him report that he loves serious scholarship -- Nobel Laureate James Heckman once marveled at how Obama was so interested in "what the research shows." Obama seems comfortable enough intellectually to be able to listen to criticism and different perspectives, which is a trait Bush really lacked and was ultimately his downfall. Obama just seems to exude confidence and competence, and he even speaks in complete sentences! After eight years of Bush, this to me is like a blast of fresh air.

McCain's temper
Obama's cool
Obama's reputation at Harvard Law (a glowing account from the conservative Weekly Standard!)
Evaluating Professor Obama at the University of Chicago law school: Here, here, and here.

#3 Economic Policy
Obama has an interesting mix of views about the economy. He tends to blend conservative free-market ideas with more liberal ideas about government regulation. For Obama, market forces are often marshaled through government leadership to solve social issues. This is true, for example, of his "cap and trade" plan to combat global warming. I think this ability to blend different points of view (both liberal and conservative) is one of his key strengths as a candidate.

Much of Obama's economic plan involves investments in a new "green" economy. This is an attempt to address both energy issues and economic issues at the same time. Obama proposes $150 billion in spending to develop new green technologies that will, hopefully, supply more highly-skilled manufacturing jobs. This is the sort of "Apollo Program" for energy that I've wanted to see for a long time.

As for the recent turmoil in the lending industry, Obama wants the government to play a strong role "refereeing" the credit and banking industries. Most of the current turmoil, as I understand it, can be traced back to some key deregulation legislation in 1999, which was spearheaded by McCain's main economic adviser, Phil Gramm. Obama has promised, correctly I think, to revisit the issue of regulating the banking sector.

Obama also seems to be more fiscally responsible than McCain. The Tax Policy Center, a respected non-partisan think tank, added up all the budget proposals and found that, unsurprisingly, Obama's budget doesn't balance. But it also seems that his proposals are closer to being in balance than John McCain's. Obama's plans, if fully implemented, would increase the deficit by an estimated $3.4 trillion, while McCain would raise the deficit by over $5 trillion. It seems that Obama does take fiscal responsibility seriously, at least more so than McCain at this point.

On how Obama uses free market solutions for progressive goals
More on Phil Gramm, McCain, and the financial crisis
Obama's most recent speech on the economic crisis
Tax Policy Center summary
Tax Policy Center detailed report

#4 Education plan
Since this is my area of professional expertise, it is something I love to talk about. I think one of the most important things about Obama's education plan is his "zero-to-five" plan. One of the big problems in schools, we've found, is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds come into kindergarten already far behind their peers. Obama's plan would supply grants to states to expand early childhood education programs (preschools) and also increase funding for Head Start initiatives (which are really great success stories when it comes to federal educational policy). Another important element of Obama's education plan is his reform of "No Child Left Behind." Obama wants to fund NCLB closer to its congressional allocation (finally!) and also to move away from simply using test scores to evaluate student performance. Schools will still be held accountable for performance, but they will be evaluated on a more complete picture of student achievement. These are two much needed changes in federal policy, and I think they will make a big difference in public education. Finally, Obama's advocates "paying teachers for performance," which is important because it breaks somewhat with traditional Democratic orthodoxy. Obama wants to reward teachers who (a) participate in mentoring new teachers, (b) work in tough school environments, and (c) successfully raise student performance. I also like that he will work with teachers in creating the standards used for merit pay initiatives. This is all great stuff!

Obama's education plan

#5 Health Care Plan
Obama's health care plan isn't ideal, and it is not what I would dream up if we could start all over again. It does have both interesting cost-savings provisions, though, as well as a realistic plan to extend health coverage to everybody that wants it. He plans to keep the insurance industry basically intact, with some regulations prohibiting them from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. He also plans to create a new national, government-subsidized plan. Employers must offer health insurance to their employees, or pay into the national plan. While Obama does have a mandate for children, for adults Obama believes that, with affordable alternatives, people will choose to buy insurance and do not need to be forced into a plan. If he is right, this would further decrease insurance costs. After all, often the people who don't buy insurance are young and healthy. If these people start to buy insurance in greater numbers, then insurance costs will decrease for everybody. I think Obama might be right about this, but I admit that I don't have much of an argument to prove the case.

McCain's plan, in contrast, leaves a lot to be desired, from both an economic and moral standpoint.

My analysis of McCain's plan
A good defense of Obama's plan
And another
Some research critical of McCain's plan
Some research critical of Obama's plan

A note to those concerned about social issues
Obama is both pro-life and pro-choice. Obama is pro-choice in that he would no doubt appoint judges that would sustain Roe v. Wade. BUT: He is pro-life in that he favors policies that will serve to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. These policies include expanding the social safety net for expectant mothers, and increasing the affordability of contraception and the availability of education programs. In short, he wants to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions, while ensuring that such procedures remain legal. This seems like a position that even a strong pro-life person would be able to accept (and some do -- see Doug Kmiec below). As far as gay marriage goes, I doubt that this will even be an issue that the next president faces -- marriage is more a state issue than a federal issue (for the record, Obama favors civil unions).

Pro-life Catholic legal scholar Doug Kmiec on why Obama's pro-life position is better than McCain's
Recent data on the decline of abortion and its possible causes -- seems to suggest, to me, that Obama's proposals might be successful

Thanks to a conflicted voter and friend who gave me the excuse to put this together.

Monday, September 22, 2008

It's a boy!

Looks like our third child is going to be boy. Anyone want any little girl clothes?

Above is a picture of his face and his wee little foot. Ain't he cute?

The Financial Crisis [Bryan]

I don't have much to say about the financial crisis, or the proposed $700 billion dollar bailout currently being proposed. Most of the economists I read, on both the right and left, think this is a bad idea. But that may say more about who I read than the merits of the issue itself. I will say that worries about "socialism" sure seem disappear fast when rich people are on the line. I know, I know, it is more complex than that, but still.

I think it has been interesting watching the presidential candidates react to this crisis. This is, truth be told, not really an issue for this campaign -- whatever decision is made, it will be made long before the next president enters office. What it does do, however, is offer a glimpse of how the candidates approach problems.

John McCain's behavior during the crises has been remarkably strange. First he says that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong," then he flips the next day and says the economy is "in crisis." Then, defying everything that he has ever believed and voted for when it comes to banking regulation, McCain suddenly becomes Mr. Government Regulator, rallying against the corruption of Wall Street. Seeking a "bad guy" to take down (as he likes to do), he then wildly charges SEC Chairman Chris Cox with "betraying the public’s trust" and calls for his firing. He calls for a 911-style commission to investigate the financial crisis and then drops the idea completely. When analyzing the cause of the meltdown, he basically says that it's Barack Obama's fault and uses it as an opportunity for personal attacks. He has never once answered questions from the press about any of this.

I'm very biased about all this, of course, but conservative writer George F. Will is not. And this is what he had to say on This Week:
I suppose the McCain campaign's hope is that when there's a big crisis, people will go for age and experience. The question is, who in this crisis looked more presidential, calm and un-flustered? It wasn't John McCain who, as usual, substituting vehemence for coherence, said 'let's fire somebody.' And picked one of the most experienced and conservative people in the administration, Chris Cox, and for no apparent reason... It was un-presidential behavior by a presidential candidate ... John McCain showed his personality this week and it made some of us fearful.

The contrast with the cool, measured, and serious approach by Obama is striking. Perhaps he is a bit overcautious, but at least Obama is ready to answer questions about the mess from the press. Here is his press conference from a few days ago (before the Paulson plan was unveiled):

A Mormon Homily: Joseph Smith and Civic Life [Bryan]

A talk given to the Hilliard Ward of the LDS Church, Sept 21, 2008. It was requested that I speak about "civic responsibilities" -- here is what I came up with.

As a member of the LDS Church, what is my responsibility as a citizen? How does being a Mormon change how I act in my community and in politics? Is my religion purely a private matter, something that has no bearing on larger social, cultural, or economic issues? Or, is my religion something that should dominate my life as a citizen – should I, for example, seek to ensure that the principles of my religion become the law of the land? Or is the relationship between my religion and my citizenship something else entirely? These questions are particularly difficult because we live in a society full of different religions – believers and non-believers alike – many of whom claim to possess unique truths, just as we do.

In the Fourth Gospel, we read that Jesus, when asked if he was a king, replied, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). In this story, Jesus seems to be uninterested in the political or civic life. His kingdom was very different from those here on earth: it was instituted to save souls, not to keep order; it sought to change us through love, not force us to be obedient through power. The idea that Christ's kingdom belongs to another world, and not to this one, has led some Christians to turn away from their role as citizens. They have sought Christ in quiet monasteries and through silent contemplation rather than through civic action.

But there is also the story of the tribute money, recorded in all of the synoptic gospels. A man, apparently a Pharisee spy, approaches Jesus and asks him about the lawfulness of giving tribute money to Caesar. Jesus sensing that the question is a trap, responds, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s” (Matt 22:21). One could read this passage as endorsing a sort of divided life. You have the life of God on the hand, the life of Caesar on the other, and these lives have nothing to do with each other -- no intermixing of the two is allowed. But, really, the lesson we are to draw from this story is uncertain. For one thing, it is clear that Jesus was not answering a sincere question. For another, one might ask whether this teaching applies to us in constitutional democracies or only to those living under occupation by Imperial Rome.

One thing we might do, when we want to know about the relationship between our religious lives and our lives as citizens is to examine the life and teachings of Joseph Smith, who lived in a constitutional democracy. How did he see things? What was the relationship between Joseph Smith the prophet and Joseph Smith the citizen?

Richard Bushman, in his acclaimed Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling, indicates that, at first, Joseph took the “my kingdom is not of this world” view. Larger civic communities and political entities were simply irrelevant. Bushman writes, “ [Early] Mormons…tended to dismiss human political institutions as ephemera doomed to disappear.” For Joseph, though, this attitude slowly began to change with the experience of mob persecution in Missouri. While confined in Liberty Jail in 1839, Joseph was told to record the persecutions and sufferings of the Mormons and "present them to the heads of government" (D&C 123:6). The Jackson county attacks suggested to the Latter-day Saints that the government could be an ally in recovering their lost land. Another revelation suggested that, under persecution, the Mormons should “befriend constitutional law” (D&C 98:6). Civic government had become relevant!

The Missouri persecutions also changed how the new Church came to see itself with respect to other citizens. The Mormons began to tell a story, not just of Golden Plates and a glorious Restoration, but now also of their persecution by mobs. They told their story, not necessarily to convert their audiences, but to inspire sympathy for their plight. As Bushman points out, telling such a story assumes, of course, that there are good and sympathetic people whom the Saints can befriend and work together with, even if these people do not convert to Mormonism. This insight freed the Mormons, in some ways, to work with other good people in civic society.

The story of Joseph’s engagement with the larger civic and political world comes to its climax, no doubt, in 1844, when Joseph declared his candidacy for the US presidency -- he ran on an interesting platform that called, among other things, for the establishment of a national bank and the eventual abolition of slavery.

Clearly, Joseph began to see the need to be an active citizen, and he seemed to believe, at the end of his life, that religious duty and civic involvement could be compatible. The life and teachings of Joseph Smith offer some help, however, not only in understanding that civic engagement is necessary, but also in how we are to act in politics and the public sphere. Looking at Joseph’s life and teachings, I’ve come up with a list of five things that I believe Joseph would advise if he were here today. These principles will be familiar to most of you, I think, even obvious, but they are things we could all do better, especially me.

First, I think he would say that we can’t be agents for good in our communities if we are not first good listeners. Joseph wouldn’t want us to assume, I think, that we Mormons have all the answers. He once wrote, “Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes…. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’” Elsewhere, he says, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Thus, Joseph thought that all of those around us, all of the non-members, have much to teach. Joseph not only paid lip service to listening to different perspectives, in Nauvoo he actually offered people time at his pulpit. As one visitor to Nauvoo, a socialist, wrote, “Joe Smith was in the practice of inviting strangers who visited Nauvoo, of every shade of politics and religion, to lecture to his people.” I don’t think Joseph would approve of a public discourse dominated by shouting, ugly insinuation, and name-calling; instead, he would want us to listen more closely to what others have to say.

Second (and this is related) Joseph would say that we should be informed as we act as citizens or serve our communities. Joseph saw intelligence as a primary feature of godliness, and where did intelligence come from? For Joseph, it was partly through hard studying and hard reading. In section 88 Joseph says, “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” And what sort of things should we read and study? Section 88 says: “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.” Now, that is a reading list that will keep us busy for a lifetime! To be sure, his advice was aimed at missionaries, but at the end of Joseph’s life there was no clear distinction between missionaries and civic agents – missionaries, after all, played the central role in Joseph’s 1844 presidential campaign. So this advice to be informed holds, I believe, for all of us who would be active in our communities or in politics – we should study and read widely throughout our lives, taking in many different perspectives.

Third, I think Joseph would want us to pay special attention to unpopular groups or people who were not being protected under the law. Joseph was stunned, remember, when President Martin Van Buren told him after Missouri, "Your cause is just, but I cannot help you.” As part of his 1844 presidential platform, it therefore should be no surprise that Joseph promised as president to help unpopular groups if the state government was not doing enough to protect them. Obviously, this grows out of Joseph’s own experience as the leader of a despised and unpopular group. As Latter-day Saints, I believe he would say that we have a special responsible to the “least of these [our] brethren” – to the poor and disabled, to prisoners and sinners, and to the "bruised and battered children of the earth." As Joseph B. Wirthlin recently said, “At the final day the Savior will not ask about the nature of our callings. He will not inquire about our material possessions or fame. He will ask if we ministered to the sick, gave food and drink to the hungry, visited those in prison, or gave succor to the weak.” “That,” Wirthlin says, “is the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Fourth, I think Joseph would say that, although civic engagement can be part of religious life, we should also recognize the limits of mixing religion and politics. In D&C 134 he writes, “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.” We wouldn’t want others to force us to live by their particular religious principles, so we should not force others to live by ours. We do need to remember sometimes, especially in a pluralistic society like ours, that the Lord’s kingdom is “not of this world.”

Fifth, in all our civic interactions, Joseph would have wanted us to engage in public life in a spirit of friendship. He once said, 'Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of "Mormonism"; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” Joseph, then, wants us to try change this world, not simply wait for a future world to come. He advocates a type of revolutionary action -- a revolution so radical that it will cause war, that great scourge of the human family, to cease. That revolution, however, is not grounded in violence. Instead, the revolutionary Joseph Smith advocates a quiet revolution: not of shouting, but of kindness; not of hostility, but of friendship; not of beating others down, but of lifting them up. Joseph, on this point, may be dismissed by cynics as an idealistic dreamer. And it is true that Joseph Smith was dreamer of sorts, but he was a prophetic dreamer, and his visions, for us Mormons, bear the mark of divine inspiration. We do not have to agree on everything, but we can be friends, and in that civic friendship – more than in the policies we advocate -- the world will find peace. Just think: of all the things Joseph could have said in talking about the most important principles of Mormonism – he could have said priesthood, revelation, and so forth -- he chose to talk about friendship.

Joseph says, in my mind, that our Mormonism, more than telling us the positions we should advocate or the issues we should champion, teaches us the personal qualities that make for good citizens. It is my hope that we can be listeners and learners, as Joseph advised. That we can look out for the “least of these” and grant to others the same religious freedoms that we cherish. All of this, I believe, is circumscribed in the idea of friendship, that Grand Fundamental Principle of Mormonism. And this is the ideal that should govern our civic and political lives.

In the end, Joseph, as with the rest of Christianity, describes God fundamentally as a creator. For Joseph, though, the difference is that God does not create alone; instead, he calls others in friendship to participate in his work of creation. Joseph talks of God calling together "grand councils," councils in which God gives us a voice in his planning and requests our hands in building a more just and beautiful universe. Working together with others, as citizens, is perhaps another way we can work as creators and as active agents for good. It is my hope that we can be creators and do good with others in the spirit of friendship.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Things to do in your spare time: economics edition [Bryan]

It has been very interesting to watch the economy collapse the past few weeks one domino at a time. Next stop: the insurance markets that (as I understand it) covered the securities that backed the loans that were given to people who should never have been given loans. It is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. If you have some spare time, stop and gaze upon the spectacle. It is really a wonder to behold -- the wheels of modern economy grinding to a halt. And there isn't a darn thing anybody can do about it now.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming...

Monday, September 15, 2008

The House Goes Dark [Bryan]

One interesting thing about Ohio is that we sometimes get the "leftovers" of the hurricanes that hit the gulf coast. Usually, like with Katrina, we just get a lot of rain. However, the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through town yesterday, with 75 mph winds. Our power and phone lines are now out, and shingles blew off our roof. The paper says the power may be restored in 7 days. Kids reaction: loved every minute of it.

Here is a picture from our house yesterday:

Monday, September 08, 2008

Kid pics [Bryan]

My folks came to visit last week and we had a great time exploring Ohio together with them. I'll blog about our travels with them later, but here are two cute pictures my Dad sent.

Nora at our science museum being a "newscaster."

Andrew checking out the molting of a cicada -- I love his expression.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Temperament -- Updated [Ellie]

Don't read this until you have read Bryan's beautiful reflection on Nora's first day of school. Done? Ok. Now go ahead.

I don't usually blog about politics. That's Bryan's department. He's better at it and generally more informed than I am. [Bryan adds: and troublingly obsessed with it.]

But. . .

Having watched both the Democratic and Republican Conventions this week, I just have a couple of reflections I must get out.

I recently finished the year-long project of reading the excellent new biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I admired Lincoln before this biography, but this thorough and fascinating book taught me why I should really admire him: because he was an excellent leader and an extraordinarily moral man. In selecting his Cabinet, he gathered around himself the most talented men of his era--even if they did not share his views, and even if they thought poorly of him, stereotyping the "Westerner" as an inexperienced and unsophisticated man. With only one exception (Salmon P. Chase, an Ohioan, whom history has not been kind to) these men came to admire Lincoln's honesty, his open consideration of all sides of an issue, his patience, and his desire to do the right thing. In several instances, individuals in and out of his Cabinet treated him with incredible scorn and disrespect. His regular practice in these instances was to pour his anger, self-justifications, and frustrations into a scathing letter. . .and then never mail it. Having dealt with the anger of the moment, he then thought about what was best for the country, and acted calmly and decisively.

I'll revisit Lincoln in a moment, but now on to the conventions. I should note that I enjoyed both Obama and McCain's speeches. They were similar in many ways. While I watched a good portion of what PBS showed of both conventions, there was one moment that struck me the most. Either Tuesday or Wednesday night of the Republican Convention, the "post-game" analysis was on. Mark Shields (Syndicated Columnist, Liberal) and David Brooks (New York Times, Conservative) were discussing John McCain's temperament. Everyone agreed that John McCain always treated his staff well. So far so good. Then Brooks, who endorses McCain, went on to add that he treated his colleagues in the Senate quite differently. He noted that McCain was known on the Senate floor for his red-faced, screaming rages at senators who voted against his measures. That he yelled at them for betraying him or being disloyal. Brooks then noted that he sometimes apologized hours later, but sometimes held grudges. It was agreed that he had a horrible temper. He once publicly called his wife--his wife--a term so vulgar and offensive that I honestly had never even heard it before I graduated from college.

I can't help but be disturbed by this. What I am looking for in a president is someone who has the temperament for the job. Who is a good leader in the pattern of Lincoln. Based on this analysis of him by a friendly commentator, I feel that John McCain is not that man. I was awed by the stories of his courage as a POW--who wasn't? But being a POW is not, McCain himself acknowledges this, a qualification to be president. Grace, respect, and clear-headedness under pressure is.

While I do not personally know Barack Obama, I do know that he is not a red-faced, screaming ranter. It is simply not in his temperament. He is a student of Lincoln--has read and studied the same biography I did (didn't know this until I finished it). This alone does not qualify him to be president. I've watched him over the past several years (remember, we voted for him in Illinois), and I've seen someone who is thoughtful and open to new ideas, who is graceful and clear-headed under pressure. He treats his wife and children with genuine affection and respect. He doesn't, though he is counseled to, stoop to shouting and name-calling in this race. I hope that as Americans consider who has the character to be a good president, they consider this.

For more on McCain's temperament, see here and here and here and here and here.

Update: An article out just today sums it up:

McCain's history of hot temper raises concerns

John McCain made a quick stop at the Capitol one day last spring to sit in on Senate negotiations on the big immigration bill, and John Cornyn was not pleased.

Cornyn, a mild-mannered Texas Republican, saw a loophole in the bill that he thought would allow felons to pursue a path to citizenship.

McCain called Cornyn's claim "chicken-s---," according to people familiar with the meeting, and charged that the Texan was looking for an excuse to scuttle the bill. Cornyn grimly told McCain he had a lot of nerve to suddenly show up and inject himself into the sensitive negotiations.

"F--- you," McCain told Cornyn, in front of about 40 witnesses.

It was another instance of the Republican presidential candidate losing his temper, another instance in which, as POW-MIA activist Carol Hrdlicka put it, "It's his way or no way."

There's a lengthy list of similar outbursts through the years: McCain pushing a woman in a wheelchair, trying to get an Arizona Republican aide fired from three different jobs, berating a young GOP activist on the night of his own 1986 Senate election and many more.

McCain observers say the incidents have been blown out of proportion....

When John McCain came to the Senate in 1987, he quickly got two reputations: a Republican who'd do business with Democrats on tough issues and an impatient senator who was often gruff and temperamental.

In January, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., told The Boston Globe that "the thought of (McCain) being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me." (Cochran has since endorsed McCain.)

Added Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., who has a long list of vociferous, sometimes personal disagreements with McCain, "His charm takes a little getting used to." (Bond, too, supports him.)....

Stories abound on Capitol Hill: how McCain told Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., how "only an a-hole" would craft a budget like he did. Or the time in 1989 when he confronted Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, then a Democrat and now a Republican, because Shelby had promised to vote for McCain friend John Tower as secretary of defense, and then Shelby voted against Tower.

McCain later wrote how, after the vote, he approached Shelby "to bring my nose within an inch of his as I screamed out my intense displeasure over his deceit ... the incident is one of the occasions when my temper lived up to its exaggerated legend."....

Families of POW-MIAs said they have seen McCain's wrath repeatedly. Some families charged that McCain hadn't been aggressive enough about pursuing their lost relatives and has been reluctant to release relevant documents. McCain himself was a prisoner of war for five and a half years during the Vietnam War.

In 1992, McCain sparred with Dolores Alfond, the chairwoman of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen and Women, at a Senate hearing. McCain's prosecutorlike questioning of Alfond - available on YouTube - left her in tears.

Four years later, at her group's Washington conference, about 25 members went to a Senate office building, hoping to meet with McCain. As they stood in the hall, McCain and an aide walked by.

Six people present have written statements describing what they saw. According to the accounts, McCain waved his hand to shoo away Jeannette Jenkins, whose cousin was last seen in South Vietnam in 1970, causing her to hit a wall.

As McCain continued walking, Jane Duke Gaylor, the mother of another missing serviceman, approached the senator. Gaylor, in a wheelchair equipped with portable oxygen, stretched her arms toward McCain.

"McCain stopped, glared at her, raised his left arm ready to strike her, composed himself and pushed the wheelchair away from him," according to Eleanor Apodaca, the sister of an Air Force captain missing since 1967.

McCain's staff wouldn't respond to requests for comment about specific incidents.

Nora's first day [Bryan]

On Tuesday, Nora began Kindergarten. I'm not somebody who thinks the world is a terrible place; rather, I think the world, while often tragic, is also full of beauty and goodness. This is Nora's first exciting step into that world. I can't wait until she learns some of the things I have learned. I can't wait to hear what she thinks about things, what she makes of the unending possibilities of the world, what she paints on the canvas of her life. I can't wait until she begins to dream big dreams. (Dreams that don't just involve princesses.)

Still, there are some scary things out there and I have always found meaning in being her protector. When she cried as a baby, I would hold her tight and sing to her. I would love that moment when I could feel her calm down. It was as if I had made her feel safe and secure. It was as if, as I held her close, she could feel love being transmitted through my arms. She would be upset, and I would make the world right again; she would be scared or hurt, and I would bring peace.

My big fear is that now I won't be able to do that. Is she ready to start learning about the world on her own, without me always acting as a protective shield? Will other children be mean to her, call her names, make fun of her clothes, appearance, or anything else that children find cause to ridicule? Can she really be the same girl that, just yesterday it seems, was a little two-year-old in pig tails chasing fire flies? Can she have grown this old this fast? Have I done everything I could to prepare her to start living in the world? Will she lose her vivacious spirit? Will she have friends who will bring out the best in her?

I don't have answers to any of these questions. But as I saw her little body get on that big bus, I felt again that raw mixture of emotion that is peculiar to being a Dad -- a mixture of pride, worry, inadequacy, and of course, immeasurable love. Good luck Nora. Don't forget that your Dad will always be there for you.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The GOP Convention -- Updated Twice [Bryan]

I've been watching the Republican National Convention. I just got done watching Mitt, Huckabee, Rudy, and Palin speak. Almost every moment was full of sarcasm, smugness, mockery, and belittling humor. With the possible exception of Huckabee, none of them had anything but sheer contempt for the accomplishments or leadership of Obama. Quite a contrast from the Democratic convention; indeed, I can't think of a time when the Democrats mocked McCain in this way (heaven knows there would have been plenty of ammunition).

The Republicans seem to believe that the only way to win the election is to completely tear down Obama and his deluded supportors. This strategy of sarcasm serves to divide America in two: the true patriots pitted against the un-American traitors. There wasn't any attempt tonight to craft a positive vision for America, there were no glimpses of a common ground that could heal the cultural rifts in American life (as Obama proposed in his convention speech), just mockery and attacks. I guess this is what wins elections.

The ironies of the night were rich and too numerous to mention: Republicans (often from very wealthy backgrounds and elite colleges, ahem, Mitt Romney) decrying the elitism of someone raised by a single mom, Republicans talking about the terrible problems with the government that they have mostly ruled for the past decade, Republicans lamenting the evils of big government when they oversaw the largest expansions of government in decades, Republicans decrying Obama's lack of "executive experience" when their own presidential nominee has exactly none, Republicans railing against earmarks when their vice-presidential pick never met an earmark she didn't like (including her fondness for the "bridge to nowhere" she now claims to have opposed), and so forth and so on (the Associated Press's brutal" fact check" on the night can be found here).

Update: I think this new video really captures what a lot of people don't understand about the Obama campaign. It is only partially about Obama; he is really just a symbol. It is about people, most of whom have never really been involved in politics before (like me), coming together to say: We don't have to be cynical anymore; we can work together and truly be the United States of America. Quite a contrast from the tone of the GOP right now.

Update 2: McCain's speech was certainly much less sarcastic and smug in tone than his VP -- good for him. I can't help but be moved by his POW story, even though it was told 100 times at the convention. It usually makes me suspicious when people constantly highlight how patriotic they are, but I guess if anybody can brag about their patriotism, McCain can. His call to serve our country was welcome, particularly when we noted there were many ways of serving (like being a teacher!)

A few clarifications of Obama's positions: McCain claims that Obama will raise taxes. Obama will only raise taxes on individuals making over $250,000 a year. Most of us will actually receive a bigger tax cut under the Obama plan. On this point, it is fair to point out that McCain's health care plan looks to eliminate the tax exemption for employee health care benefits, which (whether a good idea or not) will increase taxes for most people (average tax increase of $2000 is what I've read). McCain said Obama will "force families into a government-run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor." This is a lie -- Obama's health care plan leaves private insurance intact, and you can still choose this option if you want it. Of course, even with our private insurance companies and HMOs, our system now is shot through with bureaucrats -- they are just profit-seeking bureaucrats instead of government ones. Finally, McCain said, "Sen. Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power." In reality, Obama has indicated he is willing to compromise about drilling if major clean-energy initiatives are included in the total package. This seems like a sensible compromise to me. He has always said nuclear power needs to play a role.

I think McCain should be commended for certain things. It is only fair to point out, though, that his image as a reforming maverick can certainly be challenged. Not mentioned last night were McCain's involvement in the infamous "Keating Five" scandal and his dramatic, politically expedient flip flops on issues such as the Bush tax policy and immigration. McCain has always really wanted to be president, and, like everyone else, he makes the compromises he thinks he needs to get there.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Working at a gas station [Bryan]

In May 2005, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a PhD in education and philosophy. I had been lucky on the job market and had found a tenure-track job relatively quickly. One problem: Since I had officially graduated, all of my student funding was over and my future job would not begin until October -- five months away! I began to look for a short-term job to feed the family.

The list of options for such work is short, especially if you just have one car and thus need to work close to your home. Employers were often confused when I applied. I still remember the look on a lady's face when I tried to explain why a thirty-year-old PhD would want to work at a local cookie shop -- apparently all her other applicants where sixteen year old girls. So, where did I end up getting a job? At a nearby gas station: the Circle K on Mattis Avenue in Champaign. I got paid $6. 70 cents an hour, which was actually above Illinois minimum wage.

I've had several real jobs in my life, but working at a gas station was a new world for me. I was standing at the counter my first week and a lady came in, looked at me suspiciously as a new person, and demanded: "Parliament menthol light 100s." I guessed (correctly) that she were talking about a cigarette brand and looked up at the hundreds of different cigarettes stored above my head. It took me a few minutes to find what she was looking for -- as a good Mormon boy, cigarettes are as foreign to me as any exotic food. Meanwhile, my cash register was beeping furiously indicating that people wanted authorization to buy gas and a man was impatiently standing by the lotto machine wanting to buy lottery tickets. I found that I had no idea how to work the cash register and people were complaining that the soda fountain was broken while others were demanding refunds for the broken tire pump outside.

It was a rude awakening to the world of low-wage retail work.

Here's the worst part: If somebody drove off without paying for gas, I got blamed for it. This usually happened two or three times a week. Although they never actually did it, the bosses often threatened to take the money for the stolen gas directly out of our paychecks (which would have effectively cut my weekly paycheck of $200 a week in half). How did they justify this? The deal was that we were supposed to "authorize" all vehicles who were paying for gas without a credit card outside. That is, we were supposed to memorize the make, model, and license plate number of all vehicles pumping up who had yet to pay. If a vehicle then took off without paying, we were supposed to call the police and make the report. Only an official police report could save you from responsibility. Although they never excised their "right" to fine me, they did use effective guilt trips. I remember desperately sprinting after a red van half way down Mattis Avenue hoping to get its license plate number.

While people were busy stealing gas outside, the surveillance on the employees was extraordinary. There were at least 3 cameras posted around the counter. One was positioned right above the cash register so they could monitor every transaction. The place exuded a lack of trust in its employees. Employees were the enemies and watched over liked potential criminals.

While I was there I got robbed, I broke up a racial confrontation, and tripped the alarm causing the police to be called.

What did I learn from all this? First, I learned that almost any job has its satisfaction. As bad as it was, it still felt good when my register balanced or when the store looked good at night when I was locking up. Second, I learned that the jobs that look easy can sometimes be very difficult. A modern gas station cash register is really a thing to behold -- it is a complex tool with dozens of different primary and secondary functions. Third, I learned that it would be impossible to support a family working at the job like that. I made under $1000 a month, working almost full time.

Next time you are is a gas station, be nice to the poor schmuck behind the counter. He could be a desperate PhD.