Author: Sam Brunson

Romance, MTC Edition

silver-engagement-ring

Tomorrow morning, a bunch of Provoans (and presumably others) will wake up with a brand new ring on their left ring fingers. To all of you: congratulations and good luck! This, though, isn’t your story.

Alan Lomax and All the Good

Alan_Lomax

Today, were he still alive, Alan Lomax would have celebrated his 97th birthday.

I confess that I wasn’t familiar with Lomax until after I got married. The long and the short of it: Alan Lomax was a folklorist and an ethnomusicologist.

Exploring Romney’s Tax Return

Like most people who’ve looked at Romney’s return, I have to say: there’s nothing terribly interesting there.

Okay, let me walk that back: there’s a lot of hugely interesting things, if you’re interested in all the many ways a person can earn income, and all the many forms a taxpayer has to fill out when the taxpayer is broadly invested. Still, there are a couple things that I thought I’d highlight:

A Romney Tax Return Placeholder Post

Right now, I have 200+ pages of Mitt Romney’s 2010 tax return clogging up my work printer. He’s a Mormon, it’s a tax issue, I’m a tax guy, so there will clearly be a blog post in the near future. Unfortunately, I also have a job and a family and obligations (and did I mention it’s 200+ pages?), so that post may or may not happen in the next couple days. I’ve glanced through really quickly and, even though it’s fascinating, there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly surprising (his effective rate’s a little lower than I expected, but not much). Still, if there’s anything you’re curious about regarding his tax returns, please feel free to leave questions in the comments; I’ll try to answer them in my next post. As you leave comments, though, remember our comments policy. Specifically, don’t insult each other, don’t call Romney’s (or anybody else’s) personal righteousness into question, and, in general, play nice. And…

Mitt Romney’s Tithing Problem (?)

stock certificate

ABC broke the news: Mitt Romney has donated millions of dollars worth of stock to the Mormon church. SEC filings disclose that a Bain partner donated $1.9 million of Burger King stock to the Church; in addition, the Church has received stock of other Bain holdings, including Domino’s, DDi, Innophos, and the parent company of AMC Theaters.

But why? Why would Romney give the Church equity stakes in bad fast-food chains, second-rate pizza chains, and other such holdings?

Sex-Ed and Social Justice*

***WARNING: This post mentions sex. I use the word a lot in this post. If that makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the post for you.*** Over the summer, the Bloomberg administration announced that, for the first time in two decades, public school students in New York would be required to take sex-ed. The curriculum the administration recommended—HealthSmart (middle school and high school) and Reducing the Risk—include, among other things, lessons on abstinence and birth control.

Christmas Flavors

Finals are graded, so yesterday I made red onion marmalade.[fn1] Stirring the apples and red onions and lemons, I though about what food evokes Christmas for me.[fn2] Why food? Because a lot of my life today revolves around food. One year, I was up until two in the morning the day before Thanksgiving making mincemeat ice cream. (I didn’t believe my wife that we were getting up the next morning at 4 to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Turns out, she was right.) Every summer, we can tomatoes and jams and chutneys so that we can have those flavors during the winter. And sometimes we invite people over for dinner just to have an excuse to cook something new. What I remember: Christmas mornings, opening presents with my sisters and brother and parents, listening to Bing Crosby (or, sometimes, John Denver), eating nuts and chocolate candy and Vons eggnog (if there was any left) and, eventually, having a big…

Interest Never Sleeps

Hypothetical:[fn1] Alex and Pat both want a Kindle Fire.[fn2] Alex goes to the local brick-and-mortar[fn3] Amazon store, pays $200 cash, and takes a Kindle Fire home. Pat goes to the bank, gets a loan for $200, goes to the local brick-and-mortar Amazon store, pays the $200, and takes a Kindle Fire home. Who made the better decision?[fn4] *** In the Church, we’re suspicious of debt. Sure, we get a pass on student loans, a modest house, a first car, but, as a general rule, our leaders discourage incurring consumer debt, and celebrate those who have escaped debt’s clutches. Having grown up a member of the Church, and having heard the various talks and lessons, I suspect most members would say that Alex made the better decision;Alex has the Fire and no debt. Pat, on the other hand, has both the Fire and the debt. *** Assuming you agree with my intuition that, in general, Mormons would think that Alex made…

Harold Bloom, the Byrds, and Me

About a week ago, James posted a reflection on Harold Bloom’s (frankly awful) New York Times op-ed. Rather than directly responding, though (other than expressing his rightful disappointment), James engaged with Dr. Bloom’s allegation that Mormonism and Protestantism are converging. Though concerned about such a convergence, James ultimately (and rightly, I believe) doesn’t think we’re headed inexorably down that path. That said, Dr. Bloom is right that the Church has changed a lot between 1844 and 2011.[fn1] Change is inevitable and, as Ecclesiastes tells us, is to be expected. And, frankly, there have been a number of changes that, even if they risk our Protestantization, I’m really happy about. And I’m not talking Official Declaration 1 or 2 stuff—I’m going to assume that most of us are grateful that polygamy is no longer the sine qua non of the faithful member, and that all of us are grateful that we don’t live in the world of a racially-based Priesthood ban.…

Things for Which I’m Thankful

1. My family. I haven’t said much about them on this blog, and will continue not to say much about them here, but I’m certainly thankful for them. 2. Social networks. And I mean this on all sorts of levels. Facebook has brought me back in touch with friends from high school with whom I otherwise wouldn’t have any contact. But I’m also thankful for IRL social networks: my colleagues, my neighbors, members of my ward, my kids’ friends’ parents. I’m thankful for the community that can happen when the guy comes out to repair your internet, and it turns out he has a kid the same age as your kid. 3. The eternal potential of (1) and (2). It adds that much more to these relationships to know that they can continue. 4. North Face. For this Southern Californian, it’s nice to know I’ll be able to survive another Chicago winter.[fn1] 5. Jim Henson. I remember watching the Muppet…

Utah Women in the Labor Market

The Atlantic Cities, currently one of my favorite sites, has, over the last several days, run a series looking into the best states for working women (both generally and in the “creative class”). What leaped out at me: Utah’s a pretty bad place to be a working woman.

How Are You Celebrating?

No, today isn’t a national holiday. It’s not any particular religious festival. We’re more than a week away from Halloween, a month from Thanksgiving, and a couple months from Christmas. The only reason you have today off (assuming you have today off) is because today is Saturday. And yet . . . On October 22, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, a bipartisan bill. That law, signed 25 years ago today, was the last fundamental tax reform in which the U.S. has engaged. Among other things, it broadened the tax base, reduced the number of tax brackets, and reduced the highest tax bracket from 50 percent to 28 percent. It vastly simplified the monster that the tax code had become. Since 1986, of course, the number of tax brackets has crept up, top marginal rates have crept up, and plenty of loopholes and special exceptions have been reintroduced into the tax law; we…

Background: Elder Oaks and the Charitable Deduction

Yesterday, as Marc pointed out, Elder Oaks testified in front of the Senate Finance Committee in favor of the deduction for charitable giving. He argued that the charitable deduction is vital to the nation’s welfare. Why, though, these hearings on the charitable deduction? Is it under attack? In case you haven’t been following the politics of tax and budgeting recently (of course, who hasn’t?), I thought I’d provide a little background to the hearing. The Deduction for Charitable Donations The charitable deduction is an itemized deduction (more on that later). It’s one of the older deductions in the tax law, though its run is not coterminous with the tax law. The modern federal income tax was enacted in 1913, but the charitable deduction didn’t manage to get enacted until 1917. And what is the relevance of a deduction? Basically, a deduction reduces your tax liability by the amount of your deduction times your marginal tax rate. So, for example, if…

All the Single Mormons

Marriage

I wouldn’t be shocked if, in April’s General Conference, I were to hear a reference to “All the Single Ladies,” the cover story of this month’s Atlantic. In spite of its utter not-Mormonness, Kate Bolick’s article is oddly resonant of a strand of discourse we’ve been hearing in the Church for the last several years. In case you haven’t read the article,[fn1] a quick summary: the author finds herself still single at 39, in spite of having had plenty of relationships and in spite of the fact that she expected, at least for some portion of her life, to get married eventually (she points to 30 as the magic age). Now, she finds it less likely. So she explores the world of women who do not (by choice or circumstance or some combination) get married.[fn2] And largely she believes the decline in marriage is because of women’s increasing success, men’s declining status, and the marriage market. How’s that, exactly? Let’s…

Elder Cook and Theodicy

My last year at BYU, I sat through an Elders Quorum lesson where the teacher discussed the etymology of “atonement.” I was skeptical that it actually derived from “at-one-ment,” and, immediately after church ended, I walked across campus to the Writing Center, keyed in my code, and pulled out the Center’s OED.[fn1] And, to my surprise, I learned that, although it looks suspiciously convenient, atonement does come from “at-one-ment.” Fast-forward a decade or more. I continue to be skeptical of stories that seem a little too pat and convenient, including Elder Cook’s story of the missionaries who didn’t board the Titanic. It felt a little too much like the story of the missionaries who called off their meeting in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.[fn2] Thrown off, I didn’t catch the profundity of his remarks. After Conference, I quickly Googled and discovered (a) there is credible evidence, predating Elder Cook’s remarks, that Elder Sonne, et al., did, in…

Free Your Pulpit

pulpit

On Sunday, as we luxuriated in General Conference (however we followed it), we missed an annual tradition: Pulpit Freedom Sunday.[fn1] A quick background on Pulpit Freedom Sunday: on July 2, 1954, Lyndon Johnson proposed that Section 501(c)(3) (the Internal Revenue Code section that exempts, among other things, churches, universities, and the NCAA from tax) be amended to prevent exempt organizations from campaigning on behalf of or against candidates for office. [fn2] There’s no legislative history, and, in fact, no record of the voice vote on the amendment. But it passed. Note, though, that the prohibition wasn’t particularly aimed at churches; in fact, most people seem to think Sen. Johnson was worried that (non-religious) nonprofits were trying to unseat him. Since 2008, the Alliance Defense Fund  has sponsored Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The basic idea is that pastors flout the prohibition, deliberately supporting or opposing a candidate for office in their sermons. Which they record. And send to the I.R.S. The idea seems…

The Church and Taxes

form-990

The Church cares about taxes.[fn1] It doesn’t really seem to care about the details of tax policy, of course. I’ve never seen the Church weigh in on the appropriate tax rate, tax base, or even the appropriate type(s) of tax (e.g., an income or consumption tax, a retail sales tax or a VAT, or whatever) a government should impose.[fn2] But still, it makes explicit and implicit nods that indicate that, ultimately, it cares both about its tax position and that of its members. The Church and (Its) Taxes Like (essentially) every other church in the U.S., the LDS church is exempt from taxation. Not only that, certain U.S. taxpayers who donate to the Church[fn3] can deduct their donations. And the Church is careful to protect its tax exemption. It explicitly does not endorse or oppose candidates for office.[fn4] Church property cannot be used for doing things that would endanger the Church’s tax exemption. It organizes its for-profit businesses as separate, non-exempt…

Desert and a Just Society

The 2010 poverty level in the U.S., we learned on Tuesday, is the highest it has been since 1993. In 2010, about one in six Americans lived below the poverty line.[fn1] In June, 14.6% of Americans received food stamps.[fn2] To some extent, the high poverty rate is probably related to the high unemployment rate, which was 9.1% in August. I throw out all of these numbers to suggest that, as a society, we have a problem. That problem needs to be fixed. And we, as Mormons, undoubtedly have something that we can bring to the discussion of how to fix it. As I think about how we can fix poverty, though, I’m hugely influenced by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill’s book Creating an Opportunity Society.[fn3] Haskins and Sawhill point out that Americans care about desert.[fn4] That is, as Americans, we want those who have the ability to work for a living. And I’m interested in this idea of desert. Because…

Mormonism and Social Justice

Recently, we’ve seen some distrust of religions that advocate social justice, from sources as diverse as the political punditry and lay Mormons.[fn1] The criticism is unfounded, of course, and strikes me as ahistorical and anti-Catholic. The term “social justice” comes from 1840, when the Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli as he worked through the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. As you look at Jesuit schools’ mission statements, you begin to understand how central social justice is to the Jesuit identity. I teach at a Jesuit law school. Part of our mission is to “prepare graduates who will be ethical advocates for justice and the rule of law.” This social justice emphasis is inspired by the belief that each human being “deserves dignity and respect.” And Pope Benedict XVI takes this dessert further: he says that charity is inseparable from justice.[fn2] So why spend this time, on a Mormon blog, talking about Catholic conceptions of social justice? Because not only does the Mormon tradition has…

Mission Finances, part 3

(Note: this is the fourth part of a several-part series. You can read previous installments here, here, and here.) Quick review: prior to November 1990, missionaries and their families paid the actual cost of their missions. Moreover, parents would send money directly to their sons and daughters, with no intermediation from the Church. In May 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. United States that such payments were not tax-deductible, notwithstanding language in the Internal Revenue Code that contributions made “to or for the use of” the Church would be deductible. In November 1990, the Church announced that, going forward, it was equalizing the costs of missions; all (U.S. and Canadian, at least) missionaries would pay a set monthly amount into the Church’s mission fund; the Church would then disperse to missionaries the amount of money they needed. While there’s no indication that the decision in Davis caused the Church to change its policy, I wouldn’t be shocked…

School’s Back (pt. 2)

Next Tuesday, the Brunson household starts a brand-new adventure. At 9:00 am, my oldest daughter starts kindergarten. Though I’m not sure I’m ready to have such a grown-up daughter, she didn’t ask my permission to get this old. And she’s excited. And she’s completely and totally ready for it. Growing up, my dad gave me and each of my siblings a father’s blessing the night before school started. I’m pretty sure he kept doing it through my first year of law school. (I got married between my first and second years, and at that point, didn’t go back to San Diego over the summer.) That blessing, as much as the actual first day of class, became a mark of my academic year, signaling and sacralizing the new year. It’s a tradition that has stuck with me, and one I’d like to start in a week. But I’m also curious: what did you do growing up, and/or what do you do…

Mission Finances, Part 2 [edited 8/26/2011]

[Note: this is the third (yes, third) part of a many-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 1.5 here.] [Note #2: A friend points out that I left some information out of this post that is helpful in understanding what I’m talking about. That information is in Part 1, but it’s been a long time since I posted Part 1, so I’m adding some clarifying details in bold. Thanks, SG.] Pop quiz: when you think “Mormons” and “US Supreme Court,” what do you think? (The correct answer is, of course, Reynolds.[fn1]) For many of us, though, another less-known case impacts our lives, at least while we’re missionaries or while we’re supporting missionaries, nearly as much: Davis v. United States. Brother and Sister Davis had at least two sons, Benjamin and Cecil. In 1979, Cecil was called to the New York Mission, while in 1980, Cecil was called to the New Zealand-Cook Island Mission.  In 1981, the Davis paid…

School’s Back (pt. 1)

In just less than 2 hours, I’ll teach my first class of the 2011-2012 school year. Which means that summer’s over. (Yes, I realize that it may not be for you personally—I know some places have been in school for the last couple weeks, while the Chicago Public Schools don’t start for another two weeks. And many of you have graduated, anyway. But go with me here.) Because of the impending classes, I’ve been thinking recently about memorable classes and teachers I’ve had. And one moment keeps sticking out in my mind: 11th grade English. We had just finished Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In retrospect [SPOILER ALERT, btw: if you haven’t read The Scarlet Letter, don’t read any further until you have], my teacher looked a little pale. I’m not sure, though, if any of us noticed it. Then, all of a sudden, he ripped open his shirt and we saw a red “A” on his chest. Substantively, I don’t…

Grant Hardy and Personal Scripture Study

Understanding BofM ii

Every semester, one of my principal goals in my tax classes is to get my students to engage with the Internal Revenue Code. And it’s harder than you might think: often they don’t read the Code itself, focusing instead on the explanations in their casebook.[fn1] And their aversion to reading the Code is completely understandable: unlike court decisions, the mainstay of law school, there is no narrative flow, no character, no imagery, nothing that we traditionally latch onto in order to immerse ourselves in a text. And frankly, using the casebook isn’t a bad short-term decision. The casebook explains what the Code provisions mean and how they’re applied, at least in simple situations.But in the longer term, relying on the casebook’s explanation does my students a disservice. While it helps them be able to answer my questions in class, and while it likely helps them do decently on my exams, if they rely on the casebook at the expense of…

14.1 Million

In the comments to Dave’s post discussing Joanna Brooks’s discussion of myths about Mormonism, the conversation is getting hung up on whether her citation of 14.1 million members is disingenuous[fn1] or not. That discussion, I believe, misses the point.[fn2] Why? Baseline. First, because 14.1 million is as good a number as any. Sure, in a real discussion of how many Mormons there are, you need to do a whole lot more work to define what you mean by “Mormon.”[fn3] There are some areas that are clear: for example, it’s hard to argue that a person who has been baptize in the LDS church, attends church every Sunday, and self-identifies as Mormon should not be counted as a Mormon. It’s also easy to say that a person who grew up in a devout Catholic home, who has never met a Mormon, been to a Mormon church, or heard of Stone and Parker’s Book of Mormon musical, and who, moreover, self-identifies as…

Mission Finances, Part 1.5

(Note: this is part 1.5 of series that looks to be running at least 4 posts long at this point. Part 1 is here.) In the comments, Naismith pointed out that the $400/month is not the sole expense potential missionaries face. In order to go on a mission, a potential missionary needs a dental exam (including, at least in my case, getting his or her wisdom teeth removed) and a medical exam. There are also clothing costs—for my mission (IIRC), I needed 10 short-sleeved white shirts, 2 long-sleeved white shirts, a bunch of ties, two suits, a couple pairs of slacks, and a couple pairs of shoes. The thing is, all of these upfront expenses represent real money. While potential missionaries with their own health insurance or on their parents’ insurance only have to pay their $20 (or whatever) copay, without insurance, medical and dental exams represent a real out-of-pocket expense. (And the New York Times tells me that more…

Mission Finances, Part 1

(Note: this is part 1 of an at-least-3 part series.) During the 19th century, missionaries often travelled without purse or scrip, relying, instead, on the hospitality of the very people they were trying to teach and convert. And the practice apparently continued, at least in part, until the mid-20th century: until as recently as 1952, missionaries would spend at least some of their time traveling and teaching without purse or scrip. But, as missionary work became urbanized, and as the world became what it is today, missionaries (with the help of their families and their congregations) began supporting themselves, rather than relying on the hospitality of their contacts. And when I say “supporting themselves,” I mean it, at least for the next 40 years or so. In 1989, the New Era informed future missionaries that the average mission cost $300, but that costs could vary radically. And, in fact, in 1989, the average monthly cost of a mission in, say,…