Encouraging steps in Utah criminal justice reform

prison-reformSutherland Institute is encouraged by the direction of the policy recommendations presented to two legislative interim committees yesterday, and to the governor last week, by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Overall, they represent a reasonable and, just as important, a moral perspective on criminal justice reform.

As a whole, they point lawmakers in the right direction to secure true justice for individuals and society: ensuring that prison sentences are only imposed when a crime merits it; helping individuals productively reintegrate into society after a prison sentence; and protecting the public from individuals that have shown a truly harmful pattern of criminal behavior.

Moreover, if implemented and administered effectively, the proposed policies should lead to a measurable savings to taxpayers. Proper executive and legislative oversight will be a crucial component to realizing this reduced cost of criminal justice, creating the possibility for a wise re-investment of taxpayer resources. But wise fiscal stewardship is something that the state is widely, and properly, recognized for.

Sutherland encourages Utah policymakers to give these recommendations serious consideration, while adding to them constructive and beneficial changes that are brought forward through the policymaking process. We look forward to helping support reasonable, conservative reforms to Utah’s criminal justice system in the 2015 Legislative Session.

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Marriage and family focus of Vatican Interreligious Colloquium – Sutherland Soapbox, 11/18/14

This post is an expanded transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post.

Pope Francis greets President Henry B. Eyring in the Synod Hall at Vatican City as colloquium on marriage begins.© Photograph by Chris Warde-Jones/Hamanum.it

Pope Francis greets President Henry B. Eyring in the Synod Hall at Vatican City as colloquium on marriage begins.© Photograph by Chris Warde-Jones/Hamanum.it

Today, we’ll take a look at marriage and family: the soil, root, vine and fruit of personal growth and functional culture … of spiritual and economic prosperity.

As you’ve probably heard, an important gathering of religious leaders is underway this week at the Vatican in Rome, Italy – a three-day conference titled “An International Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman.” In his opening remarks to the distinguished representatives and participants, Pope Francis warmly and personably observed,

“You must admit that ‘complementarity’ does not roll lightly off the tongue! Yet it is a word into which many meanings are compressed. It refers to situations where one of two things adds to, completes, or fulfills a lack in the other. …

“This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. …

“We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

“Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills …

The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity. …the contribution of marriage to society is ‘indispensable’; …it ‘transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.’ … (from the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 66) …

Continue reading

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Pension madness


According to a just-released study by State Budget Solutions, Utahns are in hock to the tune of $16,350 apiece to the state employee pension system, for about $34 billion of unfunded liability. Just for context, that’s about five times the per capita taxes in the state.

Utah’s pension system, like that of virtually all states, didn’t have enough reserves and expected revenues to cover the obligations that have been made to workers in their retirement years. Generally speaking, that leaves several alternatives when the bill comes due for making up the difference: shift spending from other priorities; raise taxes; break the pension promises that have been made to workers; or reform the system so that future inflows equal future outflows.  After the economic downturn of 2008, Utah addressed the problem head-on and passed sweeping pension reforms. 

It will take time to grow out of the dip, as the reforms did not apply to current workers, but all new employees starting in July 2011. With those reforms, however, Utah is on solid footing and is regarded as a leader in pension reform around the country.

How do states get so far in debt? Easy peasy. Just kick the can down the road. Pay and benefit increases are generally expensive and take money away from other spending priorities in the short term. Pension increases, on the other hand, are paid way out in the future when someone else is in charge and, therefore, on the hook to fix. They also don’t count against any annoying balanced budget requirements, so making promises we know we can’t keep is a win-win, at least until the bill comes due.

Every year that pension liabilities accumulate, the options to fix them get narrower and more painful. The Band-Aid approach is to shovel a little extra money into the pot every once in a while to keep the decision day far enough out there to ignore, but that doesn’t address the root problem of basically writing post-dated checks.

It’s hardly leadership, and is a lot closer to irresponsible to do that. States like California and Illinois are close to the point where pension liabilities are budget breakers. Cities like Detroit and Stockton, Calif., have already gone into bankruptcy as a result of extravagant public sector pension promises that anyone with a two-dollar calculator and temporal awareness could have known would lead to crises.

So what to do? The biggest problem is that most public sector pensions are of the defined benefit type, meaning that they promise to pay a certain amount for the life of the retiree regardless how much was put in. The private sector, meanwhile, is moving almost entirely to defined contribution plans, in which the employee and employer both contribute to a pension that then pays out according to how much was put in. That encourages smart decisions by both the employee and employer, and also reduces the risks to both since everyone knows that what comes out of the system has to go in first. I’m not a mathematician, but that seems to make sense to me.

Utah largely moved away from the defined-benefit program with the reforms passed in 2010. This state has course-corrected and is on solid finanical footing. Other states have not been as wise and their problems continue to compound. Ignoring this problem will not make it go away. 

So what to do? The biggest problem is that most public sector pensions are of the defined benefit type, meaning that they promise to pay a certain amount for the life of the retiree regardless how much was put in. The private sector, meanwhile, is moving almost entirely to defined contribution plans, in which the employee and employer both contribute to a pension that then pays out according to how much was put in. That encourages smart decisions by both the employee and employer, and also reduces the risks to both since everyone knows that what comes out of the system has to go in first. I’m not a mathematician, but that seems to make sense to me.

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Ronald Reagan: Still remarkably relevant today

Official_Portrait_of_President_Reagan_1981Thirty-five years ago today, on Nov. 13, 1979, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the office of President of the United States. Though a generation and a half have passed since then, in many respects his words and the circumstances they describe sound remarkably relevant today.

They tell us we must learn to live with less, and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been; that the America of the coming years will be a place where – because of our past excesses – it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true. I don’t believe that. And, I don’t believe you do either. That is why I am seeking the presidency. I cannot and will not stand by and see this great country destroy itself. Our leaders attempt to blame their failures on circumstances beyond their control, on false estimates by unknown, unidentifiable experts who rewrite modern history in an attempt to convince us our high standard of living, the result of thrift and hard work, is somehow selfish extravagance which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity. I don’t agree that our nation must resign itself to inevitable decline, yielding its proud position to other hands. I am totally unwilling to see this country fail in its obligation to itself and to the other free peoples of the world.

Reading the transcript or watching the video of the full announcement address provides additional meaningful insights — about the man twice elected as our country’s chief executive, and about us.

As highlighted in a comprehensive online resource about our 40th president,

Ronald Wilson Reagan was the first – and last – modern conservative President of the United States. That fact alone accounts for the divergent recountings of his terms as leader of the free world. Members of the Political Left still revile Reagan, while simultaneously dismissing the accomplishments of his terms in office as if the major changes he envisioned and championed would have transpired without his leadership.

During Reagan’s tenure, those from the Left celebrated the balance of power and proclaimed the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union, content to live in a world divided into camps of the slave and the free. And few dared dream that this often precarious and edgy state of affairs could end in the span of their lives. But together with a band of courageous allies and inspired aides, Reagan adopted policies that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain, making the world both safer and freer than anyone could have hoped when the perilous decade of the 1980s began. In the process, Reagan demonstrated irrefutably that centralized power and bureaucratic planning cannot be harnessed to serve the public good. And the Left cannot forgive Reagan for that – much less acknowledging or congratulating his victory.

Regardless of one’s personal philosophy or political affiliation, of the many compelling messages proclaimed by Ronald Reagan, two more stand out as especially pertinent in today’s world:

We…believe that the preservation and enhancement of the values that strengthen and protect individual freedom, family life, communities and neighborhoods and the liberty of our beloved nation should be at the heart of any legislative or political program presented to the American people. (February 6, 1977)


Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it, and then hand it to them with the well-taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in America when men were free. (March 30, 1961)

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6th Circuit marriage decision is powerfully protective of liberty – Sutherland Soapbox, 11/11/14

Wedding ringsThis post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post. 

Last week’s decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has thrown a wrench in the “inevitability” of a national mandate of gender-neutral marriage. The conventional wisdom after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the marriage cases in Utah and a handful of other states was that the issue was over. The confident prediction was of the eventual triumph of the (misplaced) idea that the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from recognizing in their laws that marriage is the union of a complementary set of a wife and a husband.

Now that the federal courts in at least one region of the country are bound to respect voters’ beliefs about the meaning of marriage, there will likely be an attempt to get the Supreme Court to force all the states to get in line. But this split in the Appeals Courts also provides the Supreme Court an opportunity to do the right thing and allow marriage to reflect the principle that children deserve to be raised by a married mother and father.

The Sixth Circuit majority’s conclusion about marriage is important. The way it reached that conclusion is also critical and serves as an example of restraint and adherence to the Constitution that serves as a model for other courts.

Consider this analogy from the decision:

All Justices, past and present, start their assessment of a case about the meaning of a constitutional provision by looking at how the provision was understood by the people who ratified it. If we think of the Constitution as a covenant between the governed and the governors, between the people and their political leaders, it is easy to appreciate the force of this basic norm of constitutional interpretation—that the originally understood meaning of the charter generally will be the lasting meaning of the charter. When two individuals sign a contract to sell a house, no one thinks that, years down the road, one party to the contract may change the terms of the deal. That is why the parties put the agreement in writing and signed it publicly—to prevent changed perceptions and needs from changing the guarantees in the agreement. So it normally goes with the Constitution: The written charter  cements  the limitations on government into an unbending bulwark, not a vane alterable whenever alterations occur—unless and until the people, like contracting parties, choose to change the contract through the agreed-upon mechanisms for doing so.

This approach is powerfully protective of liberty. Rather than assuming major social controversies should be resolved by judges second-guessing the normal political process, in the absence of clear constitutional authority to do so, this approach takes seriously the written-down nature of the Constitution. Without an anchor in the text and original meaning of the Constitution, judges may invent (for however noble a motive) interpretations of the document that have the effect of “constitutionalizing” their own views of what makes “enlightened” laws. Perhaps their decisions will be accepted by others and perhaps not. But, in the process, citizens are taught, in Professor Robert Nagel’s words, “the scary lesson that anything can be done with words” as the Court acts “like some lumbering bully, to disrupt social norms and practices at its pleasure.”

The Framers knew changes might be desirable and necessary and established a difficult but not insurmountable way to change the terms of the Constitutional charter.

The amendment process ensures deliberation by creating a slow process, requiring broader support for the change than would be required for simple legislation and by ensuring ratification by the citizens—the very ones who will be affected by the change.

In the Sixth Circuit decision, one judge dissents and calls the amendment process impractical. If “impractical” means “difficult,” then, yes, that’s precisely the point. Having a fundamental charter that’s consistent and predictable is the very essence of the rule of law. Preventing novel changes to the charter being made on a whim or by handful of appointed officials is a feature, not a bug of our constitutional system.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Dave Buer. Thanks for listening.

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Below are some further highlights from the court’s decision:

What remains is a debate about whether to allow the democratic processes begun in the States to continue in the four States of the Sixth Circuit or to end them now by requiring all States in the Circuit to extend the definition of marriage to encompass gay couples. Process and structure matter greatly in American government. Indeed, they may be the most reliable, liberty- assuring guarantees of our system of government, requiring us to take seriously the route the United States Constitution contemplates for making such a fundamental change to such a fundamental social institution.

Of all the ways to resolve this question, one option is not available: a poll of the three judges on this panel, or for that matter all federal judges, about whether gay marriage is a good idea. Our judicial commissions did not come with such a sweeping grant of authority, one that would allow just three of us—just two of us in truth—to make such a vital policy call for the thirty-two million citizens who live within the four States of the Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. What we have authority to decide instead is a legal question: Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit a State from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman?


Applied here, this approach permits today’s marriage laws to stand until the democratic processes say they should stand no more. From the founding of the Republic to 2003, every State defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, meaning that the Fourteenth Amendment permits, though it does not require, States to define marriage in that way.


A dose of humility makes us hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world, shared by most, if not all, of our ancestors, and shared still today by a significant number of the States. Hesitant, yes; but still a rational basis, some rational basis, must exist for the definition. What is it? Two at a minimum suffice to meet this low bar. One starts from the premise that governments got into the business of defining marriage, and remain in the business of defining marriage, not to regulate love but to regulate sex, most especially the intended and unintended effects of male-female intercourse. Imagine a society without marriage. It does not take long to envision problems that might result from an absence of rules about how to handle the natural effects of male-female intercourse: children. May men and women follow their procreative urges wherever they take them?  Who is responsible for the children that result? How many mates may an individual have? How does one decide which set of mates is responsible for which set of children? That we rarely think about these questions nowadays shows only how far we have come and how relatively stable our society is, not that States have no explanation for creating such rules in the first place.


To take another rational explanation for the decision of many States not to expand the definition of marriage, a State might wish to wait and see before changing a norm that our society (like all others) has accepted for centuries. That is not preserving tradition for its own sake. No one here claims that the States’ original definition of marriage was unconstitutional when enacted. The plaintiffs’ claim is that the States have acted irrationally in standing by the traditional definition in the face of changing social mores. Yet one of the key insights of federalism is that it permits laboratories of experimentation—accent on the plural—allowing one State to innovate one way, another State another, and a third State to assess the trial and error over time.


Consider how plaintiffs’ love-and-commitment definition of marriage would fare under their own rational basis test. Their definition does too much because it fails to account for the reality that no State in the country requires couples, whether gay or straight, to be in love.  Their definition does too little because it fails to account for plural marriages, where there is no reason to think that three or four adults, whether gay, bisexual, or straight, lack the capacity to share love, affection, and commitment, or for that matter lack the capacity to be capable (and more plentiful) parents to boot. If it is constitutionally irrational to stand by the man-woman definition of marriage, it must be constitutionally irrational to stand by the monogamous definition of marriage. Plaintiffs have no answer to the point. What they might say they cannot: They might say that tradition or community mores provide a rational basis for States to stand by the monogamy definition of marriage, but they cannot say that because that is exactly what they claim is illegitimate about the States’ male-female definition of marriage. The predicament does not end there.  No State is free of marriage policies that go too far in some directions and not far enough in others, making all of them vulnerable—if the claimants’ theory of rational basis review prevails.


Neither was the decision to place the definition of marriage in a State’s constitution unusual, nor did it otherwise convey the kind of malice or unthinking prejudice the Constitution prohibits. Nineteen States did the same thing during that period. Human Rights Campaign Found., Equality from State to State 2006, at 13–14 (2006), available at http://s3.amazonaws.com/hrc-assets//files/assets/resources/StateToState2007.pdf. And if there was one concern animating the initiatives, it was the fear that the courts would seize control over an issue that people of good faith care deeply about. If that is animus, the term has no useful meaning.

Who in retrospect can blame the voters for having this fear? By then, several state courts had altered their States’ traditional definitions of marriage under the States’ constitutions.  Since then, more have done the same. Just as state judges have the authority to construe a state constitution as they see fit, so do the people have the right to overrule such decisions or preempt them as they see fit.


In referring to “marriage” rather than “opposite-sex marriage,” Loving confirmed only that “opposite-sex marriage” would have been considered redundant, not that marriage included same-sex couples. Loving did not change the definition. That is why the Court said marriage is “fundamental to our very existence and survival,” 388 U.S. at 12, a reference to the procreative definition of marriage. Had a gay African- American male and a gay Caucasian male been denied a marriage license in Virginia in 1968, would the Supreme Court have held that Virginia had violated the Fourteenth Amendment? No one to our knowledge thinks so, and no Justice to our knowledge has ever said so. The denial of the license would have turned not on the races of the applicants but on a request to change the definition of marriage. Had Loving meant something more when it pronounced marriage a fundamental right, how could the Court hold in Baker five years later that gay marriage does not even raise a substantial federal question? Loving addressed, and rightly corrected, an unconstitutional eligibility requirement for marriage; it did not create a new definition of marriage.


No doubt, many people, many States, even some dictionaries, now define marriage in a way that is untethered to biology. But that does not transform the fundamental-rights decision of Loving under the old definition into a constitutional right under the new definition. The question is whether the old reasoning applies to the new setting, not whether we can shoehorn new meanings into old words. Else, evolving-norm lexicographers would have a greater say over the meaning of the Constitution than judges.

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Healing heroes

Dog_by_RepinThis story illustrates how Utah veterans, prisoners and shelter dogs serve and heal each other through a beautiful series of connections (with plenty of photos and video).

The dog is … a potential service animal, training to help free a war-battered veteran named Caleb Dunham from the anxiety and distress that have nearly shut him down and locked him indoors. He fought for his country in Iraq and Afghanistan; back home he doesn’t know how to fight for himself.

She’s an act of redemption for two incarcerated women who may never be free. They are training her and sending her back into the society from which they have been forcibly removed. In prison, the women teach the dog basic behavioral skills so she will soon be able to help the veteran full-time.

Rescued from shelters, these dogs in turn rescue the prisoners who train them and the veterans who have PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.

Both dogs and veterans traumatized by war are naturally hyper-aware. David Thimm, a Navy veteran of the 2005-06 Persian Gulf conflict, said everything bothered him when he got home. Monty, a German shepherd-boxer mix, steadies him. “I was kind of hesitant about choosing a dog,” said Thimm, 31. “I remember when I petted him, he put his paw on my arm. ‘You pet me, I’ll pet you.’ There’s no way I can let this dog go.”

The group behind this effort in Utah is Canines With a Cause, which provides these services at no charge to the veterans.

Capt. MaryAnn Reding helped bring Canines With a Cause to the [state] prison because it provides inmates an opportunity to give back. Although they must have exemplary behavior in prison to be selected to train dogs, some of the women … will never be released.

Initially, staff worried that 140 women living together while only a few had dogs might spark jealousy, even sabotage. Instead, Reding said, “It has united them. It is interesting to see how the dogs have taught them order. Our order is demanded. Theirs is given out of love — it’s what the dogs need.”

Click here to read more of this story at the Deseret News.

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S.L. Tribune op-ed: World Conference of Families does not spread fear

WCFfamilyof3As administrator of the ninth World Congress of Families (WCF) to be held next fall in Salt Lake City, and as a lifelong Utah resident and Latter-day Saint, I appreciate the opportunity that Erika Munson’s Nov. 2 op-ed provides to explain why Sutherland Institute is bringing the ninth World Congress of Families to Salt Lake City.

When my dad founded the Institute almost 20 years ago, one of the core principles was: “To live as free people, Utah law, policy and culture must cherish family as the fundamental unit of society.” To this end, Sutherland has long worked on a variety of issues, from immigration to prison reform, with groups holding a diversity of viewpoints, always with these questions in mind: How do we strengthen families through public policy? How do we address challenges relating to the breakdown of the family? World Congress of Families IX has that same focus.

As the World Congress has done in the past, WCF IX will convene internationally recognized scholars, political leaders, world-class entertainment and family advocates to help organizations throughout the world learn, share ideas and collaborate on ways to strengthen the family.

Another essential part of this effort is bringing together diverse faiths that, despite doctrinal differences, unite to support the family – Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, Jews and Muslims.

The World Congress of Families stands with millions across the globe who do amazing work on a wide range of critical issues affecting the family, including declining fertility, human trafficking, parental rights, euthanasia, marriage, adoption, pornography, drug and alcohol addictions, fatherlessness, divorce, religious freedom, sanctity of human life and so on.

Notably, past speakers at WCF events include The Hon. John Anderson, former Australian deputy prime minister; Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy (Holy See) and adviser to Pope Francis (Holy See); Sheri Dew, former second counselor in the LDS General Relief Society presidency; Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, chief rabbi of the Inter-Provincial Rabbinate in Holland; the late President Lech Kaczynski, past president of Poland; Dr. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr.; Elder Russell M. Nelson, apostle of the LDS Church; Paige Patterson, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Jehan Sadat, former first lady of Egypt; Ellen Sauerbrey, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; and Brad Wilcox, associate professor of sociology, University of Virginia. Continue reading

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Statement on 6th Circuit Court marriage decision

Wedding ringsIn a strong, well-reasoned opinion, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has vindicated the rights of the people of those states to recognize marriage as the union of a husband and wife. It is a great victory for the principle that the U.S. Constitution allows the people of the states to recognize the obvious—that children are entitled to a married mother and father. The majority in today’s decision recognizes that nothing in the meaning of the Constitution requires a redefinition of marriage. It recognizes that it is rational for states to recognize the differences in men and women as it relates to children’s needs, that voters retaining marriage laws were not acting out of animus, and that the right to marry recognized by previous cases does not create a right to change the meaning of marriage.

Surely appeals will follow this decision and the final outcome is still in the future, but it is heartening to have an example of federal judges who recognize the scope of their powers and are willing to allow the people of their states to exercise self-determination by defending the rightful inheritance of children—a sign of a society that takes seriously all children’s entitlement to a mother and father.

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‘Speak American!’

Two-people-talking-logoA few months ago I was on the receiving end of a fender-bender in Taylorsville. I spent some time standing around and talking with the other drivers who had been hit. After I left one conversation to tend to my bored son, two other drivers continued talking to each other, switching to Spanish. I felt a twinge of envy. To be able to switch between languages so easily!

Although both were fluent in English, it was apparent it was not their first language. Years of effort had gone into their fluency.

Learning another language as an adult is a humbling experience. Many Americans know this, even if their experience was limited to a high school class. With this in mind, I bridle when people expect immigrants to master English with superhuman speed.

Gene Simmons, the well-known linguist lead singer of KISS, is an immigrant who recently admonished today’s immigrants: “Learn to speak [expletive] English. It is the key that will unlock the keys to the kingdom. If you make the effort, then all the possibilities of this culture will open up for you and give you all the rewards that I’ve gotten.”

I can’t disagree with his point about the advantages of learning English and learning it well. Let me point out, however, that he emigrated to the U.S. from Israel when he was 8. It’s a lot easier to learn English and “get rid of your accent” when you’re 8 than later.

The second generation – as has been the case throughout America’s history – is fluent in English and often bilingual.

In recent decades, allowing any room for Spanish – for instance, providing Spanish translation on various official documents – seems to stick in the craw of plenty of English speakers.

Undoubtedly, you should learn the local language if you move to another country. But this is a process that takes years. As an adult learner, I speak rusty German and rudimentary French. If I were living in a country where either of those languages was predominant, I’d speak that language as much as possible. But if I had to sign official/government/medical documents, you can bet I’d want to read a translation in English. (Official language is difficult enough to parse when it’s written in your native language, let alone another.)

Here in the U.S., the adults will learn, slowly, and their children will become bilingual. And if our native English speakers (children and adults) pick up a few words of another language – this is not a bad thing.

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To ease income inequality, smooth the path for innovators — Sutherland Soapbox, 11/4/14

Making_shoe_racks,_Coos_County,_ca._1948_(5670423808)This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.  

Today is Election Day, so I want to talk about an issue that is the driving electoral message of hundreds of political candidates nationwide. That issue is income inequality.

Now the first thing to understand is that, in a free society, income inequality will always exist at some level. If given the liberty to do so, enterprising individuals will find a way to make more money – in some cases a LOT more money – than their neighbors. If nothing else, the history of our nation is a testament to this: There have always been rich people, middle income people, and poor people.

Of course, to acknowledge this reality as reality is not saying we should accept extreme income inequality simply as a fact of life. When growing income inequality reflects higher barriers to economic mobility for the poor and middle class, that problem must be addressed. For a conservative, this is first because the respect that we owe to the human dignity of our lower-income neighbors as free and reasoning individuals places a moral duty on us to ensure that they have reasonable opportunities to flourish as human beings, including the chance to improve their economic standing. It is also because the thriving free market economy that conservatives value requires a free market economy that is worth living in.

But the sad reality is that many who publicly lament today’s high levels of income inequality have no serious plan for addressing the problem, and are just using the issue to manipulate people’s emotions in order to capture their votes. And in today’s politics, this is especially true among political progressives.

Income inequality has become the latest fad in progressive policy circles, partly driven by an economic recovery to refuses to act or feel like a genuine economic recovery, and partly driven by the popularity of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century. Predictably, the progressive focus on the issue has been accompanied by calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and increasing the minimum wage, which it seems are the only ideas that progressives ever have about income inequality.

For my part, I have never understood this approach. After all, how is raising taxes and making people unemployable by raising the minimum wage above the market value of the skills of many low-income Americans going to make it easier for them and their families to achieve the American dream?

For those familiar with Piketty’s arguments about income inequality and the criticisms of his argument, the reality of the issue is more complicated than can be solved by simply taking money from the wealthy and attempting to mandate away the problems of the working poor.

A study published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research identified two conflicting forces underlying income inequality. Encouraging inequality is the entrepreneurial desire to significantly increase one’s income. Limiting inequality is the “creative destruction” caused by disruptive innovations which shift income-earning potential from one individual, business, or market sector to another, thus naturally limiting how much income any one person or business can accumulate.

Among other things, the researchers conclude that policies which prevent entrenched business interests from blocking new innovation and competition will serve to decrease income inequality.

There are many examples of policies that block or limit new competition or innovation. One includes ridiculous professional licensing schemes that require thousands of hours of formal education before a low-income individual can open a business in which they have some basic skill. Another is economic development policies that offer multimillion dollar tax incentives to multi-billion dollar corporations willing to relocate, effectively granting them the privilege of a better effective tax rate than their smaller and often more innovative competitors.

If we seriously mean to address income inequality and economic mobility, then we have to do more than the progressive platitudes of raising taxes and minimum wages. We have to reject calls from those representing big business to protect their privilege to special tax incentives. And above all, we have to genuinely embrace the principle of the free market in our policymaking, and reflect that principle in areas like business licensing and regulation, and economic development policy.

Otherwise, all this railing about income inequality amounts to little more than grubbing for votes.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Derek Monson. Thanks for listening.

Receive this broadcast each week directly to your iTunes by clicking here

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Eeeek, it’s Al Gore as the Beast!

Lit_Jack-o'-lantern_glowing_menacingly“What could be scarier than an elected official in a Halloween costume?” asks Politico.

Well, plenty of things, but take a look anyway! Click here to see Politico’s slideshow of various officials throughout the decades … and see if you shriek.

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‘If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be’

Voters line up in Ohio.

Voters line up in Ohio.

These two reports, published six-plus years apart, portray the civic behavior of Utahns as notably estranged from ‘responsible citizenship,’ Utah’s unique, youthful voter-age demographics notwithstanding:

Utah among lowest in nation in political engagement, report says

Study: Utah voter turnout lowest in nation

The solution to the “problem” described in these reports is not simply a matter of increasing the number of people who complete and submit an election ballot – an effort that can merely increase and multiply the effects of ignorance – but rather to increase the level of informed awareness among those who do vote: of the actuality and operation of principles; the cause-and-effect consequences of choices and behavior; of what is required to attain and sustain healthy, functional culture and civil society.

Former Sutherland president Paul Mero often talked about “earned opinion” as being more than merely having ideas one prefers and wishes to share. The value of one’s view is not simply reposed in the fact that s/he has a personal thought or preference but is rather the product of his/her effort first to learn truth and gain some degree of comprehension of its meaning and practical application, and thereby merit the willingness of others to consider that perspective.

In ways not dissimilar, while all citizens have the right to vote, it is folly and an undermining of functional society to seek merely to “get more people to vote.” Perhaps this was a factor underlying Thomas Jefferson’s sage, and prescient, declaration that,

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be (1816, in a letter to C. Yancey).

Encouraging citizens to exercise their right and privilege to vote – a privilege won and preserved by the blood of patriots – is important and commendable. That citizens exercise this right after having earnestly and meaningfully studied the issues, candidates and predictable consequences is essential.

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That dastardly, poverty-relieving capitalism

Hard_LabourNot that we should give undue attention to actors who opine on economics and politics, but this article has a couple of great charts that show just how ridiculous Russell Brand’s rant against capitalism is.

Click here to read more at AEIdeas.

Here’s more, from The Economist, commenting on how free markets help pull people out of extreme poverty:

Many Westerners have reacted to recession by seeking to constrain markets and roll globalisation back in their own countries, and they want to export these ideas to the developing world, too. It does not need such advice. It is doing quite nicely, largely thanks to the same economic principles that helped the developed world grow rich and could pull the poorest of the poor out of destitution.

And from Utah Citizen Network, here’s an explanation of how free markets have reduced poverty more than any other institution.

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Sutherland commends Gov. Herbert for not calling Medicaid special session

Sutherland Institute commends Governor Herbert for his wise and prudent decision not to call a special session to consider his proposed Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion plan. The question of whether Utah should add a second, private-insurance tier to its Medicaid program for the sake of federal funding is a momentous one. This decision has significant implications and consequences for the most vulnerable Utahns – the single parents, disabled individuals, and children who would be left behind in the lower tier of traditional Medicaid coverage. Additionally, given the long-term fiscal implications of creating a new entitlement program such as Healthy Utah, this decision ought to be considered within a budget process that sheds light on whether future state funding for Healthy Utah could be better utilized if instead spent on essential roles of government such as higher education, transportation, and corrections.

Despite calls from some to short-circuit thoughtful consideration of the details and impacts of Healthy Utah because they believe the decision merits no further evaluation, Governor Herbert made the correct decision and should be commended for recognizing the importance of a thoughtful process for making sound public policy. Sutherland looks forward to continuing this important policy dialogue where it ought to be engaged: in a general session of the Utah Legislature.

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Feeling pushed by lands ‘poll’? Sutherland Soapbox, 10/21/14

Nature's_SymmetryThis post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.  

For those who have ever wondered what a “push poll” looks like, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that’s up in arms about the West’s movement to transfer most federal lands to state control, provided a great example a couple of weeks ago.

Their poll clearly demonstrated, at least in their minds, that a majority of Westerners oppose turning over the 50 percent of Western lands that D.C. currently owns to state control. You can see a summary of it here.

This one-sided poll was crafted to support a specific outcome by asking leading questions of very few people across a wide swath of states. Shocking, I know. If either the Center for American Progress or the polling companies involved were capable of being embarrassed, they would have enough red on their faces to paint a barn. But as their purpose was simply to advance a point of view, I’m sure they’re basking in the light they’ve stolen from the rest of us. The world is just a little dumber for their efforts, and while both the left and right are guilty of dishonest polls to either push a viewpoint or raise a buck, this is a particularly egregious example.

The axiom that you get what you pay for is especially true in the polling business, where the wording of a question can lead to desired responses that campaigners can then tout as a “The people have spoken” moment. This poll basically asks people if they would rather see state taxpayers pay for the rape and ruin of public lands or have those lands munificently managed by benevolent federal cherubs gently tending the flora and fauna as they glide effortlessly — and at no cost to the taxpayer — overhead.

Here’s the question they’re most proud of:

Thinking about one idea related to national forests, national parks, wildlife refuges, and other national public lands in your state, would you support or oppose having your state Government and taxpayers assume full control of managing these public lands, including paying for all related costs, including the cost of preventing and fighting wildfires?

Got all that? Continue reading

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