Our Institutions, Ourselves

[Editor’s Note: Matthew is one of our most venerable alums. He is attracted to financial crises like the moth to the flame.]

Generally speaking we ask more from our institutions than from ourselves. We expect our courts to be impartial, our priests to be celibate and our banks to be conservative even as we are partial, promiscuous and profligate. On one level this makes perfect sense since we set institutions to create a buffer between us and the consequences of our actions. The problem is that the more successful our institutions are at managing risk on our behalf, the more risk we are able to assume as individuals without concern for the consequences. This is the very definition of moral hazard. [Read more…]

Apostles, Prophets and Personal Finance

Editor’s Note: Mathew originally posted this in April 2004. It’s worth another look, in conjunction with Mat’s new post.

I think it is widely known among Mormons that, depending on which data set you look at, Utah has led the nation in bankruptcies for a few years. [Read more…]

The Immigrant’s Path

If Thoreau was right and the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, it is the “quiet” part I find objectionable. Quiet desperation accepts its lot; noisy desperation wants something else. Quite desperation worries that things will get still worse; noisy desperation worries things won’t improve. Immigrants by temperament are of the noisy desperation variety–unable or unwilling to sit still while economies, governments and cultures sort themselves out. They are risk takers, people willing to bet they can do something to improve their situation, even when the risks are great. They do so not because they are desperate–many people are desperate and do nothing–but because they are courageous. [Read more…]

The Calling I Covet

There is one calling I secretly wish for. Prophet? Too much responsibility–and I can’t stand Larry King. Apostle? Fly more than a McKinsey consultant and no hope of retirement? Only in my nightmares. Seventy? Like playing second string on the football team. Bishop? Sobbing youth, "special" moments and an EQ full of p0rn addicts? No thanks. Mission president? Now that sounds like fun.

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Can You Support Families and Sub-Prime Lending?

Over the break I read Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren’s “The Two-Income Trap” which she co-wrote with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi. It is a quick and easy read and, I think, an important book asking why personal bankruptcy rates are soaring to unprecedented levels. (If you are a careful reader like my wife, you will notice a hat tip to Nate Oman for “important assistance with the research work” in the acknowledgments section. Such acknowledgments have become jack-in-the-box events for me, popping up where I least expect it and confronting me with my own undistinguished career.) In their book Elizabeth and Amelia argue that the usual explanation for personal bankruptcy, superfluous consumption, is in fact a myth. Instead there are a myriad of contributing factors: the costs of a mortgage far outpacing gains in wages, healthcare costs, stay-at-home mothers moving into the workplace (because she can not bring in fresh income in an emergency) and, most important to this post, deregulation of the lending industry (Marquette National Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp) leading to usurious interest rates.

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Public Service Announcement: Student Loan Consolidation

In the last few years I have learned of some people who have needlessly cost themselves a lot of money for lack of information; I am writing this post hoping to help someone from making the same mistake. I have no affiliation with the loan consolidation services mentioned below, I just want to offer what I have learned while consolidating my own loans. This is not professional advice and there are no guarantees that all of the information is accurate. You may want to consult with a financial aid counselor to assess your unique circumstances. In other words, all the usual lawyerly caveats apply.

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Let Us Now Praise Thrifty Men (and Women)

The cacophony of criticism (some of it mine) aimed towards financially profligate saints has become loud enough that it is easy to forget that Mormons have a well-deserved reputation for thrift.  Recent interest in exotic cheeses within the blogosphere notwithstanding, most of the Mormons I know buy foodstuffs that have no pedigree, drive decidedly unglamorous cars and consider $40 meals on the high side.  No doubt larger than average families are one reason many of us choose Toasty O’s and Puffed Rice over their better known counterparts, but I know a lot of people who could eat foie gras daily but choose instead Lynne Wilson. 

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A New Day?

Renewed hope for a lasting peace in the Middle East comes in the wake of Arafat’s death. After so much violence and misery, it seemed to me that hate had become a permanent part of the desert landscape. Now that the man the world recognized to represent the Palestinian people is gone, a new beginning feels possible. I do not mean to say that Arafat was all that stood between the current state of affairs and a lasting peace. There is blame enough to spread around in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pointing fingers may strengthen ideological positions, but does little to solve the harder problem of preparing populations to tolerate one another. With new blood in the Palestinian leadership, however, personal animus can be put aside and the world may find someone who, like Thatcher and Reagan found in Gorbachev, they can deal with. I don’t know much about Mahmoud Abbas, but I do know that he is considered more moderate than Arafat and is an experienced negotiator. Maybe the time for peace has come. Hope, naively or not, springs eternal.

Some Laws to Strengthen Our Marriages–The Case for Consistency

One of our friends at T&S mentions that the the “official Church advocates using political means to encourage the traditional family” and that lately that has meant supporting the effort to codify the time-honored definition of marriage. Like other good LDS, I’m trying to think of other things we could codify to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

1. Divorce–what is it good for? This is a problem in our church. Our leaders speak often about the soaring divorce rates and the negative impact on society. If you aren’t committed enough to marriage to stay in it, you probably shouldn’t be in it in the first place. With around 50% of all marriage in the U.S. ending in divorce, this presents a bigger threat to the institution of marriage than SSM. A ban on divorce with a few well-crafted exceptions for physical abuse would discourage the Britney Spears of the world from denigrating our time-honored institution. Of course it will be difficult to get popular support for this measure because so many of our family members, friends and neighbors are involved in this practice that the Bible condemns, but friends, we must be firm and stand for truth. We must not give the impression that we are going after homosexuals only because they are easy targets–we are people of principle and we must be equally firm against those who would lessen the significance of our marriages on every front.

2. Sex–for married people only. I don’t think sex outside of marriage is as big a problem in the church, but society seems to have accepted it. We’ve been told that no other sin tops this one except murder. In the old days it wasn’t socially acceptable to have sex outside of wedlock. There were strong societal taboos and there were even time-honored laws against it. The union of a man and a wife was one of the most beautiful parts of marriage. It still is. But it’s being cheapened by people who are having unions without being married. Folks, don’t be fooled, this is part of the radical agenda of people-eschewing-respect-for-virtue (PERV). If sex can be had without marriage, some people will still get married because it is important to them to make a public commitment to the person they love, but lots of people will be getting all that sexual healing without making the co-pay we call marriage. To many people that will make marriage seem less desirable and the institution will be lessened. We should therefore make a law against people have sex unless they are married. Again, this is going to be unpopular, but we must stand on principal–otherwise it will look like our principals are selectively applied to gays.

Any other ideas how we can use the law to strengthen marriage?

History of My Employment–Vol. 1

In yesterday’s post, Steve talks about jobs in bad environments for terrible pay that his mother forced him to take. Folks, it’s as if we led parallel lives. Either that or we have the same mother. That isn’t as implausible as it sounds–with so many kids running around its possible that we just didn’t bump into each other.

As it turns out, even before reading Steve’s post, my employment history had been on my mind. Last Saturday I called Mom up to review the record. I began by letting her know that I am paid decently at my law firm and asked if I should give some of the money back. She seemed surprised at the question and asnwered “no”, a position I find inconsistent with her insistance that I not take the $3 an hour Sister Slagowski offered me for yard work when I was 12 because it was “too much”.

My first real job was working for my father. I grew up on a farm and Dad, in an attempt to teach me about money, paid me a summer salary from which I was expected to buy my own school clothes. When I started I was 10 and we agreed to $120. I wasn’t being paid to do my chores of course. Daily milking the cow, feeding the chickens, pigs, and cows, mowing the golf course we conservatively called a lawn or weeding the garden that produced enough to can hundreds of quarts a year was all gratis (or as my mother put it–“earning my keep”. Chores were expected–I, along with my older brother, was paid to run the farm. We threw siphons, pulled head-gates and dug cross-dikes day and night when it was our water turn and eventually grew two crops of alfalfa and a few thousand bushels of wheat from the stubborn Idaho soil. At the end of the summer Dad called me into his study to reckon the books and cut me a check for $60. He was bishop at the time and scrupulously honest, but in money matters his memory was notoriously bad, so I ended up wearing Toughskin pants for another year instead of the more expensive Levi’s I had fantacized about.

The next year, having no better offers, I again worked for my father. The controversy from the year before had been put to rest by his promising to pay me $120 this year. After we had cut and baled the hay and harvested the grain, I met again with Dad in his study where he sold me my first investment. He would cut me an $80 check and I would use the other $40 to buy a pair of piglets in the spring which I could raise and then sell on the open market when they were adults. Making money never seemed so easy and I readily agreed to his proposal. Sitting in my law office and thinking back on this, it occurs to me that I should have read the fine print–but who thinks about that when they are 11.

The next spring Dad drove me to a farm a few miles from ours and we purchased two piglets. I grained and watered them every day, carried the pig slop (scraps from our kitchen) out to their pen whenever it was full and after about a year we had two large pigs ready for auction. My father proposed simplifying the transaction, foregoing the auction and buying the pigs directly. He offered me the magic number, $120. This was below market price, but on the other hand, I hadn’t paid anything for the grain and an $80 profit (tax free!) looked pretty good. So we slaughtered the pigs. Dad then explained that things hadn’t gone well with the farm that year (my entire family engaged in group-delusion by insisting that one year things would go well with the farm), but that he would pay me when he had the money. I guess he never got the money because I never got paid.

I advertised the injustice of the situation often and loudly enough that the Pig Money has now entered family lore. Now when we get together for family occasions, I sometimes ask Dad when I’m going to get paid. Trying to be philosophical about it, I comfort myself by thinking that if at age 30 the worst thing you can say about your father is that he welched on the Pig Money, you can’t complain.

It’s harder to forget the injustices I suffered at the hands of my mom–more on that later.

Faith Without Economic Growth is Dead

I recently spent a few weeks in the hinterlands of Utah where I found myself admiring again the Mormon pioneers, many of whom not only crossed the plains but then left the relatively verdant Salt Lake Valley to settle what even today looks like forsaken desert. As I drove through those dusty towns in Southern Utah I wondered what beliefs inspired them enough to leave everything they had ever known and walk into such an uninviting place. My appreciation grew still further, when, after four days of camping, Gigi told me she was sick of looking at red rocks and asked to go back to Salt Lake. This in turn led me to think of a study I read recently which found that there is a positive association between belief in heaven or hell and economic growth which can be found at this link: http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/barro/papers/Religion_and_Economic_Growth.pdf
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Squandered Opportunity

The single biggest reason I can think of why any American should not vote for Bush is the way he squandered the good will of the world after 9/11. Instead of seizing the moment to further discredit a corrupt ideology not only here at home but around the world, Bush’s poor judgment has given it strength. In May the International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report which noted that al-Qaeda recruitment has been accelerated by the war in Iraq and, as we all know, our relationships with many of our strongest and closest allies have been severely damaged. I will never shake the conviction that we failed to seize the post-9/11 moment to take the war of ideas to our enemies–instead we gave them a propaganda boon.

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Confessions of a So-Called Intellectual

I don’t consider myself an intellectual because by now I’ve known too many genuine intellectuals and I know that they are in a different class. They are almost always people I admire, not just because they are well read, erudite and full of interesting ideas, but because of the way they lead their lives. In Russian the phrase used to describe this is “lives intelligently,”an idea that has captured my imagination for nearly a decade. To live intelligently is something that I aspire to, but from which I am very far from achieving.
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Elder Haight Passes

Elder Haight passed away this morning of causes related to old age. When I mentioned his death to my mother she asked me if I was sure he wasn’t just taken up. [Read more…]

Full Faith and Credit

After the Federal Marriage Amendment failed to gather enough support to put it to a vote, Senator Hatch had the following to say:

“If Massachusetts starts honoring gay marriage, that means a state like my home state that doesn’t want to have gay marriage has to honor them,” said Hatch. “Virtually every constitutional authority I know of thinks the full faith and credit clause [in the Constitution] will require recognition of gay marriages.” [Read more…]

Wanted: A Mormon Corporate Ethic

A thread at Times and Seasons titled “LDS Need Not Apply” has sparked discussion of the Marriott Corporation’s decision to make p0rnography available to their guests. [Read more…]

Why You Should Live the Scout Motto

Our ward meets in the building on 65th and Broadway that will soon have a temple on the top two floors. The rest of the building is also being renovated, the result of which is that, as Steve noted in a recent sacrament talk, we meet in a place that resembles a home depot. Perhaps it is because of our long suffering that this past Sunday Elder Eyring of the Council of the Twelve attended our ward–although he said he was merely in town to give interviews to the Economist and the Wall Street Journal (happy day–I already subscribe to both of them so I won’t have to pay newsstand prices to see what he said :). He came to church apparently unannounced–a conclusion that I draw from the fact that I walked to church with two members who expected to be speaking in sacrament. In any case, I didn’t know he was going to be there, but as Steve and I walked into opening exercises five minutes late, it was pretty obvious that there was someone new on the stand (we met in the chapel due to work being done in the usual room).

I would have been more excited than worried if I wasn’t teaching. My hopes that I would not be leading a lesson in which an apostle would sit in were quickly dashed when the bishop announced that the high priests and the elders would be meeting jointly. Steve quickly, and with apparent glee, informed me that the high priests instructor was absent and I would be the man up front. The lesson topic, as you church attendees may recall, was sustaining those whom God has called to preside.

The rest of the story is largely anti-climactic. The discussion was unusually vigorous and thoughtful–several times I was reminded of the scene in Tom Sawyer when the judge attends Sunday school and everyone in the church is showing off. But that isn’t really fair either, because I don’t think that people were trying to make points, but were rather just inspired by having an apostle with us. I delivered my lesson as I had planned it–not without, I admit, some trepidation. If Elder Eyring thought I was teaching false doctrine, he was gracious enough not to correct me. In fact he didn’t say anything the entire lesson until the quorum president invited him to say a few words at the close of the meeting.

My general impressions of Elder Eyring as an intelligent, humble person were confirmed. The experience was slightly stressful, but entirely delightful and one I will no doubt remember for a long time.

Mormon Networking

Mormons like to consider themselves a social people–and among themselves I think that is indisputably the case. Most of the people I know in NYC outside of work are Mormon. It seems it is now impossible for me to go anywhere in the world without running into someone I know at church. Last summer I visited Taipei and ran into someone I knew from Vienna.

Since most of my contacts come from within the church, it seems natural to look to church as not only a source of spiritual nourishment, but a place of professional advancement. You do business, after all, with the people you know. Yet there is something disagreeable for me (and I think for most people) thinking about your fellow church/ward members as a business network. Most of us like our religion pure and that means commerce free. We accept the fact that the church needs money to operate as a necessary evil, but don’t believe in exploiting the church for material gain. Perhaps this is why so many people object to Mormon-themed businesses (another a topic for another post).

Most of our networking, like most networking in general, is done naturally. We probably all know of cases where someone moved into a ward specifically with the goal of landing clients or hobnobbing with the rich and powerful–but that is undoubtedly the exception.

There have been some steps taken to formalize what has always gone on informally. One of the primary purposes of professional organizations such as the J Reuben Clarke Society is networking.

Yesterday Dave argued that the church should stay out of politics–my question is whether commerce should stay out of church. Or should we take advantage of the opportunity to do business with one another–even overtly favor one another–rather than do business with “gentiles”? And is it wrong to seek out friendships with ward members based on a desire to increase a professional network?

I’ve thought some about this–and I’ll post my thoughts after hearing what other people think.

Chain of Command

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried an article on its front page reporting on the confusion surrounding who ordered the nation’s military on defcon 3 after the 9/11 attacks. A four star general says that he did it, but the Bush administration says that the president gave the order. Rather, they say something like no improper action was taken–although Bush has said in two speeches, both in backwater locations, that he gave the order. Reading between the lines of that carefully worded language and the places chosen for Bush to make the case that he gave the order; it seems likely that the general gave the order first. If this turns out to be the case, no doubt defenders of the president will argue that this was an exceptional case and no time for government boondoggle.
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Becoming Socialized

My sister and I had a long conversation yesterday about becoming socialized as a result of my answer to one of the questions on the political compass test Steve linked to. The question asked how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: “Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity.” I clicked “agree.”
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Those Who Are About To Blog Salute You

What can we expect from this little blog? It will likely not bring us money, fame or praise–it may make us objects of the world’s derision and alienate our family and friends. We may be denied all of the good things that this abundant earth has to offer us because we set out our convictions in an attempt to sharpen the blade of truth. We test our ideas against others, selling our thoughts in that grandest of marketplaces, in an attempt to persuade–while remaining open to persuasion. If you will not accept our ideas, accept our blog. Our mission is to harvest the wheat and separate the chaff–because we are men and because men must blog. [Read more…]


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