Monday, September 18, 2017

Revering the Constitution

Constitution Day—the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution—was September 17, yesterday. But I’m going to continue celebrating for a few days.
The US Constitution
from the National Archives

The Constitution is the basic law of the land. It is NOT what grants us rights; it is the tool we use to protect our rights, which God gave us. If we could identify that difference, it would make a huge difference in how people approach public policy.

The Constitution is a legal document, not a philosophical statement—after the preamble. So it’s not poetic or exciting. But it is profound. If you don’t admire it, you either don’t understand the Constitution’s meaning, or you don’t understand the principles that lead to freedom, prosperity, and civilization.

So let’s take this day to honor and better understand the Constitution.

Here’s the basic outline: Preamble, Articles, and Amendments.

The Preamble, which lays out the proper role of national government, is short, and beautiful, so here’s the whole thing:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The body of the Constitution is made up of seven articles, most of which are divided into several sections. Here’s a brief summary.

Article 1 lays out the powers of the legislative branch. There are 9 sections, vesting all legislative powers for our federal (national) government in Congress, which is divided into a Senate and House of Representatives, outlining who can serve in the House and Senate, and such things as elections, revenue bills, and other legal details.

Article 2 lays out the executive powers vested in the President. It has four sections, talking about how the president will be elected (the Electoral College), the president’s powers concerning the military, making treaties, and representing our country on the international stage; informing Congress of the State of the Union, and impeachment (removal from office) of the president or vice-president.

Article 3 lays out the judicial powers in the Supreme Court and inferior courts. There are three sections, detailing their powers and the kinds of cases they will cover.

Article 4 covers interstate rules, and guarantees for citizens going state to state. There are four sections, including information about how new states may be admitted, and how the federal government guarantees protection to each of the states.

Article 5 offers ways to amend the Constitution: amendments can be proposed by either two-thirds of both Houses, or two-thirds of the state legislatures can propose an amendment. This option has been talked of more in the past few years, and about a dozen states so far have voted to go ahead (including my state of Texas).

Article 6 talks about paying debts incurred by the national government, and that the federal government shall be the supreme law of the land.

Article 7 talks about ratification of the Constitution, and signatures from representative of the states at the Constitutional Convention, where the document was written and revised.

Then come the Amendments. There are 27. But the Constitution wasn’t ratified until the first ten were included. These are what we call the Bill of Rights. They weren’t originally included, because they were understood by all as a given. But there were those—Virginia led in this—who were afraid if at least some of these rights weren’t spelled out, later generations might try to abridge them (violate them, pretend they didn’t exist).

They were prescient. Not only did that forgetting happen, but even with these rights spelled out, people argue whether or not the government should grant those rights—forgetting that government doesn’t grant them; it only protects them. Think about current riots, from people claiming no one should be allowed to speak things they find offensive, or that they do not approve of. Or claims that religious freedom should be subjugated to popular beliefs about sexuality.

And there has been a great deal of government overreach—taking on authority that is not granted in the Constitution.

We need to return to our Constitution. That is the path back to freedom, prosperity, and civilization. We need all good people to learn the truths our founders knew, and then stand up as our founders did.
We’ll need to start with learning.

I came across a video (see it here) over the weekend, meant for students—probably aimed at upper elementary through middle school. But it’s worth a watch with the kids. The hosts, which include a 10-year-old girl, touring the capitol, and interviewing two senators from the judicial sub-committee on the Constitution: Ted Cruz and and Richard Blumenthal.

If you want something aimed at a little higher education level, try testing your knowledge with Hillsdale College’s quiz on the US Constitution: (here). 

And maybe that will lead you to take their Constitution 101 course, which I’ve recommended before. High school students shouldn’t be scared off by the college label; it’s what everyone graduating from high school should know and understand. In fact, every voter ought to know what’s in this course.

Hillsdale College also has an annual Constitution Day celebration going on, with live streaming on various topics, starting tonight and going through tomorrow. [Schedule here.] I’m especially interested in the “Roundtable on The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom,” at 9:00 AM EDT Tuesday.
available here

If you’re not ready to dive into a college level course, but could handle something about the length of a movie, I recommend A More Perfect Union, produced by Brigham Young University. It’s a beautifully done dramatization of that hot summer of 1786, and the extraordinary men who came together to create our Constitution.

After you’ve done a bit of study, you might want to reward yourself with a bit of humor. Here is Studio C’s frat house version of the founders.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Lot of Broken Glass

There’s an economic example often used to illustrate, among other things, how government spending affects the economy. [See here and here.]
From Greg Mankiw's blog

In short, if a vandal breaks the glass display window of a bakery, it stimulates the economy: a glazier gets, say, $500 for the work and materials to replace the window. But what we don’t see is where that $500 would have been spent if the window had remained intact. Maybe the baker could have bought a new suit, and/or hired another worker in his shop. The suit tailor and/or the new employee are out that amount of money.

There is the seen and the unseen.

So, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, here in Houston, we’re looking at an estimated $30-40 billion in metaphorical broken glass, or property damage. What is going to happen next? A lot of renovation and rebuilding. In fact, it will be a boom town for renovators. If they’re mobile enough, it would be prudent for such workers to move to Houston and set up shop for the next year or so. The same is true for drywall and flooring suppliers. And furniture sales. There’s $30-40 billion here, above and beyond what the economy needed before the storm.

Jobs galore! Isn’t this great?

Ask one of those families how they feel about it. Are they better off economically by spending money on flooring, drywall, and furniture replacement—after possibly spending money on hotels or apartment rent during the rebuild, along with clothing replacement and the expense of eating out—or would they have preferred to use their money in ways they had intended before the storm? Things like a new car, education, retirement savings, a vacation?

from the southern section of my neighborhood

Even those with insurance are likely to prefer their own plans for their money, rather than the storm-caused new plans.

People who are charitably giving sense this. They wish to mitigate the damage by volunteering labor, materials, money, or other help so that the cost to the storm victims is less severe.

Let’s take a look at the volunteer labor. The professional cost for mucking out a house—removing flooring, drywall, ruined furniture, and other debris, and then cleaning, drying, and preparing the walls and floor for rebuilding—before any rebuilding is begun, so, separate from those costs—is an estimated $16,000 per house.

Does that charitable giving deprive the economy of money? Technically, it would deprive those particular professionals of money they might have made. But there is a time issue involved. Suddenly there is a shortage of companies that do this service, since in non-storm times such needs are limited to broken pipes or other hit-and-miss personal disasters. And it’s assumed that a home needs to be cleared and aired out as quickly as possible. Any home that remains waterlogged and growing mold for 30 days is likely to be a total loss.

We’re at day 19 today. Some houses are still underwater. But this time issue is why, anywhere the water has receded enough for homeowners to return, you see the debris piles along the streets. They want to give their home the best chance possible for a successful rebuild.

Volunteers are spending their time. But we’re assuming they’re spending out of their surplus. So they’re not short-changing the economy by failing to earn during those volunteer hours. Anyone who would prevent the volunteer neighbor-helping-neighbor work would be doing nothing for the available workers in that field, since they have more work than they can do already. But they would be condemning those homeowners to total loss.

So I think we can agree volunteer work after a disaster is a community good.

While we’re talking about giving, there are plenty of places to give to charity, for anyone who wishes to alleviate some of the pain. Among those that send all donations directly to those in need:

·         Rebuild Texas Fund, which Governor Abbott has endorsed.
·         J. J. Watt Foundation, which has raised $33.5 million, but will be ending fundraising Friday, September 15, at 5:00 PM.
·         LDS Humanitarian Services, which has already provided 22 truckloads of supplies in Houston, including equipment for all those Mormon Helping Hands to use. (We are still housing the generator they provided during Hurricane Ike, for use in our congregation. We shared it with neighbors on both sides during the eight days we were without power.)
Additionally, a number of people have set up GoFundMe sites, to raise money for specific people. In this kind of grassroots arrangement, you know the money you send goes directly to those who need it. I know the people involved in these two:

·         Derrick Campos Family in Houston 
·         Harvey Recovery—Tom Tidwell 
I’ve mentioned Derrick’s story and shared his photos in the past couple of weeks. He lives not far from me. Here'e Derrick talking about coming to be willing to accept this help:


The Tidwells live in Port Arthur. I’ve been friends of their extended family since my first year of college. Both families ended up being rescued by boat and face a long recovery. There are going to be many many others in similar situations. But I know any donation you can afford would be well spent on these families.

Back to our economic discussion. One of the reasons central planning is always a bad idea for economics is that the central planners can’t know what the needs of the individual are. They can’t make better decisions than the people earning the money and deciding how to spend it. They can’t see the unseen—the economic choices that are lost when one choice is made rather than another.

Government has its role: protection of life, liberty, and property. But its economic role is mainly to get out of the way. If only!

One way the private sector has managed disaster recovery in the past is insurance. I read this helpful note earlier today:

Most of the money from previous Texas hurricanes has come from private insurance. And, in some ways, this process of rebuilding restores a balance in the economy. For the past couple of decades, almost all homeowners have paid for insurance but few people make a claim. Most of that money sits on the balance sheet of big insurance companies to pay out future claims, and those companies often invest those dollars on Wall Street and real estate. That’s all fine—good, healthy commerce.
Now the time has come for the flow to go the other way. Big insurance companies will be paying out money to settle insurance claims, and most of that will go to working class Americans who will rebuild damaged property. Demand for labor will rise, as will wages, as the money starts to flow. The tilting of the economy away from physical labor toward the financial sector will reverse – maybe only temporarily, but it will still reverse.
In other words, insurance money has been in the economy all along; this disaster just changes where it is put to work for a while. It has given many homeowners and businesses a chance to get back to their previous economic track more quickly than if they hadn’t been putting money toward insurance all along.

What about government money? If it’s there, we’ll take it. But this same author says something that maybe ought to be obvious but isn’t:

Of course, if the federal government decides to give away money, I suppose people will sign up for it. But this madness eventually needs to end. The federal government is broke, and insisting that folks in Kansas or Vermont pay for a hurricane in Houston is silly on the face of it. This is not an invading army we’re talking about here. It’s a really bad storm. The Constitution doesn’t contain the words “storm,” “weather,” or “insurance.” Why are we continuing to twist its meaning to make Congress and the President look like heroes? If they want to help, let them help with their own time, talent, and treasure. Like the rest of us.
But we also don’t want to be suckers. If Washington DC decides not to help Houston, they should end it for everyone in the future. Which they should, in my opinion.
I’ve had good things to say about Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during the past few weeks. But earlier this week, he kind of wiped out all that good will. He decided that now is a good time to add an 8.9% property tax hike to all Houston property owners. Rates will be charged at pre-storm property values—even though those values may have plummeted because of storm damage. Why? Because, to a Democrat, paying for government is paramount.

What will the citizens get for this? Not protection from this storm or future storms. Not greater fire and police protection. Not better roads or infrastructure. Nothing but the dubious satisfaction of getting city government fully funded before they even get back into their own damaged homes.

Was there a cost to the city caused by the storm? Yes. It was far less than it would have been without good engineering and planning, based on past storms. But shouldn’t the city economize, as the citizens have to, rather than burdening people who are already suffering financially?

Again, it’s that short-sighted economic view that sees only a chosen segment of society—in this case, city government. If we can get Houston back on its feet, and rebuilt, and economically humming along in its normal healthy way, wouldn’t that benefit the city well enough?

I’ll note that Harris County, a government entity that is larger than any local government entity in the US except possibly the City of Los Angeles, has decided to economize, rather than burden the people.
Fortunately, the mayor must go through the city council, with a final vote in mid-October. It may be that the people can be vocal enough to convince the city that now is not the time to force storm-weary citizens to cough up an additional $100 million in taxes.

So, when there’s proverbial broken glass, that temporarily helps the window repairman. That’s the seen benefit. But unseen are all the lost uses for that money. I hope we can soon get back to letting the people who earned it decide how to spend it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

We Will Rebuild

Sixteen years ago enemy-caused disaster happened on American soil. Our lives changed on that day. We dug through the rubble, and helped one another out of the ashes and debris. We were stunned. But we set our jaws and said, “We will rebuild.”

Sixteen days ago nature-caused disaster happened on Texas soil. Our lives changed on that day. We dug through the rubble, and helped one another out of the flood waters and debris. We were stunned. But we set our jaws and said, “We will rebuild.”

One of the images from 9/11/2001 is of an American flag being flown on a pole among the debris.

Raising the Flag at Ground Zero
image from Wikipedia

In honor of that, a friend who has a pile of debris outside his home, posted an American flag among the debris.

Derrick and Gloria Campos fly the American flag
on the debris in front of their flooded home

He is at the stage of mucking out where they could power wash the floors, which he describes as, “One step closer to being one step closer to being one step closer to being clean.” It’s not an easy process.

He’s had a good attitude about this, considering. This is their third flood: Memorial Day Flood 2015, Tax Day Flood 2016, and Hurricane Harvey 2017. All of these were rainfalls beyond expectation, beyond 100-year flood levels (way beyond). They hadn’t built in a foolish place—unless you expect these crazy storms. Odds are there won’t be another for half a millennium. Yet they’ve come three years in a row.

Derrick told their story on the walls. And they had people from each day’s work crew sign a wall. Here’s the collection.

Wall from Derrick Campos's flooded home
The collection was posted on Facebook by Amy Knight

All I can say is, I admire the good attitude and resilience. It’s exemplary of who we are as Texans and Americans. We get to work, and we rebuild.

I spent a week out of town, visiting my son and his family. This was the view of our entrance when I left.

It was still a few days later before water was down to make the roads passable, and people near us were able to get back to their homes and begin the mucking out process, so they can eventually rebuild. On Saturday I drove through those streets. And this was the common sight.

It’s not going to be easy. But the bones of these houses are still good. Sometimes the insides are back to where they were 25-30 years ago, during the original building process—bare concrete floors and wall studs. But a year from now, barring further disaster, the signs of the storm will be hard to see.

This is still my favorite image from 9-11-2001, “Out of the Ashes” by artist Ken Turner. It shows our indomitable America spirit.

"Out of the Ashes" by Ken Turner

There’s no painting or iconic image yet for Hurricane Harvey. But, as a comparison, I’ll use this group of nearly 500 Mormon Helping Hands gathered yesterday morning for a brief church service and then instructions before dividing up into work crews for yet another day of helping their neighbors dig out of the debris. The photo was posted on Facebook by Melissa Willis, and captioned, "Get on your knees and pray, then get on your feet and get to work," quoting Gordon B. Hinckley. 

Mormon Helping Hands from the Bear Creek Stake
Center is Stake President Scott Welch; at the podium
is his counselor, President Dave Hansen

As I’m writing this, we’re waiting for news about how Florida has survived Hurricane Irma. Early reports are that the storm was not as devastating as it might have been; it had been a category 5 hurricane, but by landfall last night was down to a category 1. But that’s still a dangerous storm. So our prayers are with them today. We’re with them in spirit.

I hope the fear of storms doesn’t interfere with our lives. Or the fear of loss. Or the sadness at lost treasures—photos, heirlooms, surroundings. I hope what lasts is the memory of helping one another, of being in this together, rebuilding together.

Because United We Stand.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Through the Deep Waters

I’ve been away from Houston the past several days, helping out family, as planned well before Hurricane Harvey. But I’ve been following much of the labor and service and heartache, and I’m so proud of my many friends who are reaching out and putting in one heavy-labor day after another, at no cost—simply because it has to be done, and we Texans have compassion for those in need.

Disaster relief comes in stages: preparation, getting through the storm, rescue, mucking out, and then rebuilding. We’re at the mucking out stage now. In some neighborhoods, enough of that has been done to get trucks in to pick up the debris. In other areas, houses still have standing water, and the owners are still waiting to get inside. The longer that takes, the more damage, sadly.

Anyway, as you might imagine, there’s no hiring enough workers to muck out that many homes, and many homeowners are unable to do the job themselves. That means, if it’s going to get done, it’s volunteers who will do it. And that’s what my friends are doing.

So I’ll just share a few of their images that I’ve borrowed from Facebook. I want to note that Mormon Helping Hands aren’t the only helpers. We’re two percent of the population, and no everyone has the right age and ability for this job. Catholic Charities is working with us, and there are many other organizations and ad hoc community groups doing this messy work. But my access to friends who are doing this is mostly Mormon Helping Hands.

This first group is from my ward (congregation) Monday. Similar groups (including many of the same people) have been mucking out homes since late last week. 

Mormon Helping Hands from Copperfield Ward on Monday
Several friends posted this photo, so I'm guessing and
giving photo credit to Janet Taylor

Here’s another crew coming from my church building. Their regular church building got a lot of water damage, so they'll be sharing our building for some time.

Mormon Helping Hands from Bear Creek and Westlake Wards on Monday.
Photo credit to Melissa Willis

And here’s another crew from a little way north. They were lucky to have President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, of the First Presidency (a counselor to the Prophet and President of our worldwide Church) show up for services on Sunday—which were short and followed by work crews heading out to assignments. In every way, it was a special Sunday service.

Cypress Stake Center, which had been a command center
for boat rescue, is now a command center for
Mormon Helping Hands. President Uchtdorf
showed up to join them this Sunday.
Photo credit to Mary Moellmer.

If you wonder what mucking out means, it’s tearing out flooring, moving damaged furniture and debris to the curb for pickup, and tearing out damaged drywall from above the flood line so the insides of the walls can dry out completely before rebuilding can be done.
It looks like this.

Photo credit to Derrick Campos, who hasn't been able to get back in
his own house yet, but has spent the waiting time helping other
people do the mucking out. This is the third time his home has
flooded in recent years. Sometimes life isn't fair.
Another photo from Derrick Campos
This is what's happening inside--cutting out drywall.
Another photo from Derrick Campos
Flooring gets removed inside as well.
Photo from Melissa Willis, who had water up
onto the driveway, but her house was spared.
Some friends of mine, the Siebert family, are very talented. Jim Siebert is the meteorologist for the local Fox television station, and he’s the one many of us tuned in to for constant updates during the storm week. His wife, Debbie, is a musician, with a particularly gorgeous voice. They have been doing short Sunday hymn videos for a while—the whole family. They did one this past Sunday. It’s a hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” It’s a common Christian hymn, although I think many churches use a different tune (“Old Hundredth,” I think it’s called). But they do the one from our LDS Hymns. The fourth verse, which we’ve sung all our lives, has taken on new meaning these past couple of weeks:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee, and sanctify to thee,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
The Sieberts used photos from the disaster and cleanup as backdrop to their song. When they get to this verse, they change tempo and tone, which brought the tears when I heard it—for the sorrow of loss so many are feeling, because of literal deep waters; for the generosity and kindness of so many who are helping others in their need; and for the love that we feel from our Father in Heaven, who promises to be with us, our troubles to bless and sanctify.

We’ve said for more than a decade now, when the Lord wants His people to turn to him, He sends a hurricane to the Gulf Coast. Mormon Helping Hands have been active here since 2005, the year of Katrina and Rita. Would that we would all turn to Him without these painful reminders. But bad things happen even to very good people. When they do, our job is to serve God by serving one another.