Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Paying Tithes, part 2: The Huffington Post weighs in

Here's Bill Gunderson's opinion, from the Huffington Post. First, the link: .

Now, just in case that link stops working, here's the text of the article. (It's better if you go read it over there, though. Besides, SOPA/PIPA might end up deleting my cut-and-paste job some day.)

Much has been made lately of Mitt Romney's tax returns and his effective tax rate. Is it fair that Mitt pays an effective tax rate of 13.9%, while Warren Buffett's secretary pays double that rate (we still have not seen her return, however)?
We currently have a capital gains tax here in America. Many countries like Argentina, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, etc. do not have any capital gains tax. Our top tax rate is 15% on capital gains here at home.
By all accounts, Mitt Romney has paid the legal taxes due on the money he has earned. He has not broken any laws. He has not been dishonest. He has paid the taxes due on the money he has earned under the current tax code. It's hard to question his honesty and integrity.
Now, if you want to change the tax code, then that is a whole other debate. It is not fair to resent Mr. Romney for paying what was legal and honest under the current code. I have many clients that have invested their money into municipal bonds, so that they can derive income from their investments. They pay NO federal or state taxes on this income. Many of them have an effective tax rate of zero. Is this fair? Is investing in sewers and roads somehow nobler than investing in businesses? Why should we give them such a tax advantage?
Should we resent Mr. Romney for how much money he makes? I don't resent how much Albert Pujols makes when he steps into the batter's box against my favorite team. I don't resent Tim Lincicum's take home pay, when he takes the mound against my San Diego Padres. Nor do I resent how much Johnny Depp gets paid for one of his movies. These folks have become the best at what they do, and there should be no limit as to how much they can make.
How about Mitt Romney's charitable contributions? Should we resent the fact that he pays a ten-percent tithe to his church? Last time I looked Malachi was the last chapter in the Old Testament. It seems to me that Jews, Christians, and Mormons alike, recognize the Old Testament as a canon of scripture.
Was it not Malachi who said, "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse...and prove me now herewith...if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." I have found this to be a true principle in my own life. I think that you have seen this principle manifest itself in the life of Mitt Romney.
Furthermore, I submit to you that Mr. Romney counts his real blessings in life as the great family that stands behind him at many of his appearances, and not the monetary treasures that he will have to leave behind some day.
What about the organization that Mitt gives most of his charitable contributions to, the LDS church? Do its leaders live lavish lifestyles and use the money recklessly. The LDS church has no paid ministry, everyone is a volunteer. The church maintains warehouses full of basic needs and is ready at a moment's notice to deliver aid to those in need all over the world. In addition to this, the church has no debt.
Maybe our government can learn something from Mitt Romney and the Mormons.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Paying Tithes and Throwing Stones: Judgement and Morality in American Politics

Now that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has made his tax documents for 2010 and 2011 public, the press has latched on to the statements therein about his payment of tithes.

Romney is a faithful Mormon, or at least says he is. Faithful Mormons follow the Biblical commandment to tithe, that is, to donate 10% of their income to their church. Tithing, or payment of the tithe, is one of the items on the checklist that gives you access into the LDS temples.

Some pundits have done the math and determined that Romney's 2010 contributions fall short of the 10% mark. I'm not sure what kind of conclusion they intend to draw from this calculation. Let's follow a few logical trails, shall we?

First, there's the "A bad Mormon will be a bad president" line of reasoning: Mitt isn't a full tithe payer, therefore he's not a good Mormon, and therefore he's unworthy to be president. That's pretty funny, considering how many people out there say that a devout Mormon is also unworthy to be president. The poor guy is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.

Then there's the "The Mormon church will exert undue influence on the president" line of reasoning. I tried to follow this one, but it broke down somewhere in the middle. I think it goes like this: The Mormon church exerts this degree of financial "control" over Mitt's life, and therefore (this is the part where I got lost) the church exerts control over other areas of his life, and will tell him what to do as president. Hey, this isn't Scientology, guys. Stop trying to paint it as such.

Third is the "What a waste of money" line of reasoning.  The idea that Romney pays tithes at all really bothers some people, who feel that he is deluded or misguided in his support of an institution that, in and of itself, doesn't deserve to exist. These people feel that Romney's $2 million per year, give or take a bit, would have been better used elsewhere, and that it's a real shame to see him throwing it away like he did.

(Personally, knowing what the LDS church does with the tithes it collects, I can't think of a better use for his money. There's good info on or, telling about it from the official LDS point of view. For an outsider's view, you can look up that old investigative report from the Arizona Republic: "Counting Its Blessings", June 30, 1991. The thesis of the AzRep article was "Well, we set out to do a hatchet job on the LDS church, to uncover evidence of rampant fiscal irresponsibility. However, in everything we dug up, we couldn't find any sign of wrongdoing. We did find lots of do-gooding, though. We were really disappointed.")

Payment of tithing has always been voluntary, and it has always been confidential. At the end of the year, those who pay tithing get a summary statement, for use in preparing their state and federal income taxes - this is the same thing that other charitable organizations provide for their donors - it's required by law. And the leader of the local congregation meets in private with each member of the congregation, points to the bottom line on the statement - the total contribution - and asks one question: "Does that represent a complete and full tithe?" The parishioner's answer is kept confidential.

The church doesn't even care how big the number is. And the member isn't audited or fact-checked; his word is trusted. How much a member pays, and whether it represents a full tithe, is NOBODY ELSE'S BUSINESS.

I also find it funny that anyone would sit in judgement of Romney and whether he's a good Mormon or a bad Mormon because of this. The Fraser Institute reports that 1999, the average Californian gave less than 2% of their income to any charity, and in 2007 it wasn't any better. With only two or three exceptions, the rest of the country followed the same patterns as California. And the average Canadian was even stingier than the average American. Within religions themselves, according to an article online yesterday, the average Christian in the U.S. donates between 2% and 4.6% to his church or local congregation, and a large percentage of Christians donate nothing. Ever.

I find it even funnier that this may be used as ammunition by Romney's opponents or their proxies (including certain members of the press corps) to judge him as a bad candidate for president. This is where the "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" thing comes in. I don't think anybody in the world is qualified to pass such a judgement. Moreover, Romney's tithe donations are handled through his charitable foundation, which also gives away millions of his dollars to other charitable causes, besides the LDS church.

I think that people are trying to find chinks in the White Knight's armor. They can't zing him for sexual harassment, like Herman Cain, or for divorce or infidelity, like Newt Gingrich. (Come to think of it, a majority of the voting public are overlooking Gingrich's divorces and infidelity. What's that all about?) They can't hit him for bigotry or intolerance, although he has been the victim thereof. They can't even call him stupid, ignorant, or uninformed, as they have done to Sarah Palin - or forgetful, like Rick Perry. He doesn't even come across as arrogant or out of touch, like Gingrich and Ron Paul.

They can't find anything illegal or unethical about the way he made his millions. They haven't found any evidence (yet) of bribery, influence peddling, or shady dealings during his terms as governor of Massachusetts, chairman of the SLC Olympics, or partner at Bain Capital.

They can't even find anything wrong with the way he calculated his taxes. (If they did, the IRS would have been all over his case, and they're completely ignoring him in public.) People seem to resent the fact that Romney is so rich, and that of all the money he made last year, he only gave 15% of it back to the government - all that he was legally required to give back, according to the IRS.

So they have to find some weakness somewhere. And this is the closest they've gotten: a private and confidential religious practice, which affects only his standing before his church and his God, and which came to light only because of the quirks of the U.S. tax code (which requires charitable contributions to be reported) and the U.S. political system (which requires - not by law, but by public acclamation - that candidates for political office make their tax records public).

Postscript: For the record, I am still not an official supporter of Mitt Romney. I keep my religious affiliation separate from my political preferences. (So does Romney - or at least he would, if people would let him.) It really bugs me to see these politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, putting their religion on their sleeves, like a secret signal to fellow believers or an endorsement from God. While other candidates tell reporters where they're going to church on Sunday, and even invite reporters to accompany them, Mitt quietly slips away for three hours to perform his devotions, away from the public eye. And it amuses me to hear so many of them (I think the count is up to four, and Romney's not one of them) claim that God told them to run for president. If I vote for Mitt Romney, it will be because I think he is the best qualified candidate for the office, regardless of his religious affiliation.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Thoughts on the South Carolina Republican primary

I think it's pretty funny that the conservative voters in South Carolina chose the practicing polygamist. Or in other words, to quote Senator Boies Penrose in 1906, they chose a monogamist who can't monog over a polygamist who won't polyg.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Word peeve: an egregious overuse of a perfectly good word

Remember studying comparative and superlative in school?  Good, better, best. Bad, worse, worst. Fast, faster, fastest. Many, more, most.

For years, a beautiful word lurked in the huge English dictionaries at high schools and universities. It meant "bad". Really bad. Bad-beyond-superlative-bad. The kind of bad that only exists in a few rare places in space and time. The word was "egregious".

Then O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of a couple of people. One of the teams of lawyers discovered the word "egregious" (thanks for nothing, Mr. Roget) and started using it in court. Over and over. Then the other team of lawyers latched onto it and started overusing it. Then the reporters covering the trial started using it on TV. (But not in original print, astonishingly. I guess it's too hard for reporters to spell.)

Suddenly everybody in the English-speaking world was using "egregious" when any one of a number of other synonyms for "very bad" would have sufficed. It lost its sense of "really, really, bad". The poor word got overused to the point of meaninglessness.

At least it relieved some of the pressure on "heinous".

Word peeve: The proof is emphatically NOT in the pudding.

A long time ago (relatively speaking), the English language included a useful proverb about pudding. Let's take this proverb into the 21st Century, and go into any gelateria. You go in and look at all the gelato behind the glass panel, and you see one called "mascarpone". The description sounds pretty good, so you ask the clerk "Is it any good?" The clerk pulls out a tiny plastic spoon, scoops up a sample and lets you try it.


Because if she just tells you it's good, you'll have to take her word for it. The proof of whether mascarpone-flavored gelato is any good comes from actually tasting a sample.

In other words, "the proof of the gelato is in the tasting."

Now go back in time a century or more, into Jolly Olde England, and try the same experiment with a pudding vendor in the streets of London. You don't know whether the pudding is any good until you try it yourself. Hence, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

It's another way of saying "try before you buy". We use the concept when buying automobiles, home entertainment systems, tuxedos and fancy dresses.

But sometime in the end of the 20th Century, some ignorant mangler of the English language got it wrong, and said "The proof is in the pudding." And it stuck.

The proof OF WHAT is in the pudding? Did you stick raisins in it? Do you want me to go digging around in it with a spoon, looking for hidden treasure?

The proof of the quality of the pudding lies in the eating of it, not in its ingredients or in its mere existence.

Word peeve: nuclear

In my previous two peeves, I pointed out a couple of metaphors that get regularly mangled. Somebody is sure to tell me that the English language is constantly evolving, and I might as well accept the fact that these mangled metaphors are part of that evolution. To this, I reply "Oh, I hope not."

However, I think may as well wave the white flag on this next one.

Nuclear power entered civilization's collective consciousness with a bang - two bangs, in fact, in Japan, in 1945. Fortunately, those were the only two times that the nuclear demon has been unleashed in anger. After the war, the demon was harnessed and put to work to create steam and electrical power.

Along the way, English-speaking people began increasingly to mispronounce the word "nuclear". It's like the missing "r" in "library" and "February": some do, some don't, and the ones that do, sound stupid. I'm sorry, but it's true.

The correct pronunciation is "NOO-clear". Or maybe "NOOK-lear". They sound the same to me.

The wrong pronunciation is "NOOK-you-ler." It sounds like "jugular", but with "nuke" replacing "jug". If that were the right way to say it, wouldn't we spell it "nucular"? But we don't, do we?

Go ahead and call me intolerant. I'm also intolerant of the sound of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard, and "nucular" sounds about the same to me as those fingernails.

But like I said, I'm fighting a losing battle. U.S. President Jimmy Carter always pronounced it "NOOK-you-ler". Before he was president, he was a millionaire peanut farmer. And before that, he was an officer in the U.S. Navy.

In the submarine corps.

As a nuclear engineer.

And he has a lot more credibility than I do.

Word peeve: "home in" versus "hone in"

This one's a little more insidious. It can't be blamed solely upon the Internet, and we can only blame TV for its spread, not its origin. I don't even know where it originated, but I've heard some respected and intelligent people making this mistake.

You've heard of homing pigeons, right? You can take them hundreds of miles from their home, release them, and after enough time, you can find them back at their home.

In the 20th century, air forces invented a type of missile called a "homing missile" - you know, like a "homing pigeon." Just as a homing pigeon could find its way to its destination without guidance, so a homing missile could find its way to a target without any guidance from the pilot who fired the missile. The Sidewinder heat-seeking missile is the most well-known example of a homing missile.

A homing missile finds its target, and then "locks on" to the target, getting progressively closer to it until it hits it. This is called "homing in." A related metaphor is "zeroing in."

Somewhere along the line, someone substituted an "n" for the "m", and "honing in" was born. The reverse etymology for this term referred to honing as the act of putting a sharper edge on a knife or an axe, so that it could penetrate difficult material better.

But "homing in" with an "m" is the act of focusing on something and steering ever closer to it, ignoring any distractions or obstacles, and the metaphor of the homing missile makes sense. Trying to use "honing in" with an "n" in the same way makes no sense at all. In fact, it sounds stupid.

I'll bet people that say "honing in" also say "NOOK-you-ler" instead of "NOO-clear."

And with those last two sentences, I'm sure I've offended somebody. I'm sorry. And now I'm done.

Word peeve: "rein" versus "reign"

Part of the fallout from (a) the culture's increasing dependence on television and visual media, and (b) the stream-of-consciousness writing that infests the Web, is that we're seeing a lot more poor writing.  Excessive amounts, maybe.  Take the confusion between "rein" and "reign" in two common figures of speech.

Oh. You didn't know there was a difference?

"Reign" is what a king does. It's synonymous with "rule".  "Reins" are the leather straps attached to a horse's bridle, which a rider uses to control a horse. Got it? Now let's look at the confusion between the two.

If you are riding across the prairie and you want to let the horse decide where to go, you hold the reins very loosely, with a lot of slack in them, even to the extreme of letting go and leaving them dangling around his neck. That's called giving the horse "free rein."

When you let your kids run around the house like crazy, you may think you're giving them "free reign," because you're letting them be their own bosses. But the original term had to do with horses and reins, not with kings or their subjects.

Back to the horse. If you're galloping across the prairie and the horse is going too fast for your safety or comfort, you slow the horse down by pulling on the reins. The harder you pull, the more abruptly the horse comes to a stop. Because you are pulling the reins tight, we say that you are "reining in" the horse - reestablishing your control over the steed. Other related metaphors, all of which address the assertion of control over an out-of-control agent, are "keeping someone on a short leash" and "putting on the brakes."

There is no "reigning in" somebody. You can't even invent an etymology that goes with that. "Reigning in" makes as much sense as "a short leech" or "putting on the breaks." Don't do it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Women I have to admire

 The Question:

So, which do you think is the gutsier woman: an 18-year-old widow and mother who shoots and kills an armed intruder to protect herself and her baby; or a 22-year-old bungee jumper whose bungee cord breaks at the bottom of a 365-foot fall, who swims through the raging rapids to save herself, with a broken collarbone, stopping occasionally to dive underwater to untangle the cord that's still wrapped around her ankles from submerged rocks and stuff?

First, The Widow With a Gun:

On New Year's Eve, 2011, 18-year-old Sarah McKinley, of Blanchard, Oklahoma, was alone in her house with her three-month-old baby, trying to get on with her life after losing her husband to lung cancer just a week earlier, on Christmas Eve. Justin Martin, 24, had been stalking her, and that day he and an accomplice decided to break into her house. Some reports say that he was after her late husband's pain medication, and other reports say that he intended to harm Sarah and her baby. Sarah called 911 to ask for help, and the 911 operator stayed on the phone with her - but the intruder was moving faster than the sheriffs were.

Sarah asked the operator, "Is it okay if I shoot him if he comes in the door?" The operator replied, "You do what you have to do to protect your baby."

So when Martin finally got into the house (it took him 21 minutes, according to the 911 transcript), armed with a 12-inch hunting knife, Sarah pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at him, pulled the trigger once, and shot him dead.  According to some reports, the accomplice ran away at the sound of the shotgun blast, later turned himself into police, and verified that he and Martin had gone to the house with the intention of breaking in and hurting Sarah and her baby.

The Grady County Sheriff's department has said that the shooting was justified and that Sarah had no criminal liability in the incident.  On the other hand, Dustin Stewart, the accomplice, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. (It's a quirk in the law about deaths that occur during the commission of a crime.)  Stewart was released on bail four days later, on January 5th. Sarah's home is at the end of a mile-long gravel driveway, and she is worried about Stewart coming out for a return visit. But she still has her two guns, and she says she is "ready, waiting and watching."

None of this is an exaggeration. The news reports and a recording of the 911 call are available on the web.

Now, the Bungee Diver:

Also on New Year's Eve, 22-year-old Erin Langworthy, of Australia, was bungee-jumping from the Victoria Falls Bridge, 111 meters over the Zambezi River on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. As the cord stretched to its limit, it snapped near the top, plunging Erin into the rapids below. The impact knocked her out briefly, and broke her collarbone. "It felt like I had been slapped all over," she said later.

(Bungee jumping may look crazy, but it's normally a safe sport, especially if it's conducted by professionals, as Erin's jump was. But even with professionals, accidents do happen. It's a statistical certainty.)

When she regained consciousness, Erin rescued herself, swimming through the rapids towards the Zimbabwean shore. The current pulled her downriver, repeatedly smashing her into the rocks and sucking her underwater.  Several times, she had to stop and dive underwater to pull the bungee cord (which was still tied to her ankles) free of submerged rocks and debris. When onlookers finally pulled her out, they laid her on her back. She had to tell them to roll her onto her side - so that she could cough water and blood out of her lungs and breathe again.

In a bit of Africa-centric sensationalism, all of the news reports call the river "crocodile-infested." I say "eh." None of the witnesses reported seeing any crocs. But it does make Erin sound even gutsier.

Erin spent a week in a hospital in Zimbabwe before being released. Miraculously, she suffered nothing more than the broken collarbone and an awful lot of bruises. And none of this is an exaggeration. Safari Par Excellence recorded the whole thing, and Erin talks about the experience and shows her bruises on news reports. Both videos are available on the Web.

So, What Do You Think?

Personally, I think they're both pretty gutsy women. They both show a lot of courage. Their situations are different: one, a young mother at home, going up against armed and dangerous intruders; the other, a thrill-seeking tourist who suddenly finds everything going wrong. But their reactions are the same: in grave danger, they reach down inside themselves and find what it takes to save their own lives.

I could give Sarah McKinley the edge, because she also saved her baby's life - and even as an 18-year-old widow, she wasn't willing to sit there and be a passive victim. Something needed to be done, it was difficult, it was immediate, and she stood up and did it. But I could also give Erin the edge, because she was putting herself way out there (pardon the pun). She piled all her chips on the square marked "my life", spun the wheel, and walked away with the jackpot.

I can't decide. I'll honor them both.

Small correction:  In the introduction, I had originally said "111-foot fall".  It was actually a 365-foot fall - a little over 111 metres. I had the correct distance in the body of the article. But even a 111-foot fall would have made for a good story.

The world will end in May - again

Remember Harold Camping? He was the preacher who announced, about 12 months ago, that the world would end on May 21, 2011.

Are you still here? Okay, so he was wrong. Well, make room for the next guy.

Another preacher, Ronald Weinland, now claims that the world will end on May 27, 2012, exactly one year and six days after Camping's predicted date.

Weinland is a self-proclaimed prophet, and a leader of a group that split off from the Worldwide Church of God. For those of you keeping score, the Worldwide Church of God was founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, who claimed that the world would end (more accurately, he predicted that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur) in 1975. Obviously, he miscalculated. Armstrong met his Maker anyway in 1989, and the WWCoG fractured after that, with Weinland leading one of those f(r)actions.

It might be a good idea for you to believe him. If you don't, then he prophesies that you will die of cancer. Heck, even if you do believe him, you still stand pretty good odds (1 in 7) of dying of cancer, so that's not much of a prophecy. I just got back from a city where people lay down good money for odds that are a lot worse than 1 in 7.

How to get a good picture in a wax museum

1. First, pose with the wax figure so that the photographer can get the distances and focus correct.
2. Now the photographer must move to the position where the wax figure appears to be looking directly into the camera.
3. Still posing with that wax figure? Okay, now you look directly at the camera, pretend you're posing with a real person, and relax a bit.
4. Take the picture.

Sometimes you can skip step 2.