Category: Liberal Arts

Economics – Law – Philosophy – etc.

Exploring Mormon Thought: The Homogeneous?

William Blake's "The Ancient of Days"

In chapter 8 of The Attributes of God, Ostler continues grappling with the question of human agency in relation to God’s foreknowledge. The professional literature generated by this kind of theological question is wide and deep and the field is no particular speciality of mine. On these kinds of questions, Ostler is much better read than I am. The basic problem is this: “If there is anything in [an agent’s] circumstances which precludes a person from exercising a power, then the power cannot be exercised under those circumstances” (249). Blake argues that God’s strong foreknowledge is just the kind of  causally implicated circumstance that compromises a person’s freedom to exercise their agency. As a result, the power to choose in this instance is no real power and agency is compromised. I recommend a close reading of the chapter’s details. As a non-specialist, though, I’m wondering about the larger context that frames these really difficult questions.

Taxing the United Order

UnitedOrderPlaque

The United Order appears (for now, at least) to be a relic of the 19th century; since them, the mainstream Mormon church hasn’t attempted to institute any large-scale communal economic structure based on Acts 2. And, frankly, I don’t have any reason to think that it will in the 21st century; the Law of Consecration seems to be something different than economic communalism (though economic communalism fits within the Law of Consecration).

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.

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…

Phantom Limb

I can’t speak to your experience. I can’t speak even to my own. But I’ll tell a story. I remember the day and time and place that I stopped believing in God, but not the date.

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.

Mormons and Muslims

prayer

I had a university professor who lived in Iran and ran a television program dedicated to classical Persian music prior to the Islamic revolution. He spent a lot of time during the seventies crossing sketchy borders into various ‘Stans. One of his tools for successful border crossing (not to mention survival) was a pamphlet he wrote himself, highlighting similarities between Mormons and Muslims; things like a founding prophet, directly revealed scripture, fasting, and polygamy. I was intrigued by his comparisons, and this class was one of the many things that prompted me to study Arabic and learn more about Islam.  It’s sad to me that so many Mormons (like Americans in general) have negative and badly stereotyped views of Muslims. As adherents ourselves to a religion that often seems to get more than its share of unfair and unfounded criticism, we can afford a deeper look. During the time I’ve spent in Muslim countries (and with Muslims in this country), I have…

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…

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…

Consumerism vs. Stewardship

The following is a modified excerpt from my presentation at Sunstone this summer. We live, not only in a capitalist, but a consumerist, society. Our society is all about spending, acquiring, cluttering, and replacing, not about maintaining, restoring, renewing, and protecting. It is cheaper to buy new than to repair old.  We live in a disposable country, where everything is trash, if not now, then soon. How did we get here? One of the best explanations I’ve found is in the work of the social theorist Max Weber (1). He examined the correlation between the Protestant religious belief and its accompanying work ethic and the accumulation of capital and the subsequent rise of capitalism. One aspect [of the concept of calling that arose during the Reformation] was unequivocally new: the fulfillment of duty in vocational callings became viewed as the highest expression that moral activity could assume. Precisely this new notion of the moral worth of devoting oneself to a…

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…

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…

Grant Hardy’s Subject Problem

Criticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of the Book of Mormon simply ignore the book’s style altogether. Grant Hardy, in his new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, wants to uncouple the problems of historicity and literary merit. He brackets the first, setting aside the apologetic debates that have dominated Book of Mormon studies over the past four decades. Instead, he turns his attention to the content of…

What If President Monson Endorsed Mitt Romney?

In his talk at the close of the April 2008 General Conference, President Monson talked about the blessing we had received, both as members of the Church and, specifically, over the course of the conference. He ended his talk with counsel: parents are to love and cherish their children, youth are to keep the commandments, those who can attend the temple should, and we should all be aware of each other’s needs. But what if, in closing his remarks,[fn1] President Monson had said, “My dear brothers and sisters, I feel strongly that Mitt Romney is the best person to lead our country. I encourage each of you to campaign on his behalf and to donate to his campaign. We have also established the Perpetual Mitt Fund, with an initial investment from tithing dollars for $1 million in order. This fund will go toward his election and, if any money is left over, it will be transferred to Harry Reid’s next…

The Tax Exemption and the Church’s Political Leanings

In light of the Church’s recent policy statement banning some Church authorities from endorsing candidates, and the speculation that the Church’s political neutrality derives from its desire to stay tax-exempt,[fn1] I thought I’d present a brief primer on the tax exemption.[fn2] The Revenue Act of 1894 probably represents the birth of the modern federal income tax. An inauspicious birth, to be sure–it was struck down as unconstitutional in 1895–but the birth, nonetheless. True, it was enacted 19 years before the 16th Amendment permitted direct taxation (whatever that is), but it set the stage for the income tax to come. Including, it turns out, in the world of exempting public charities from tax. It provided that the income tax would not apply to “corporations, companies, or associations organized and conducted solely for charitable, religious, or educational purposes.” [fn3] Although the list of entities that aren’t taxed has expanded (among other things, the exemption now includes groups that foster amateur sports competition–read…

The Parable of the Talented Endowment Tax

Governments impose taxes in order to raise revenue that, in turn, funds government function and services.[fn1] In designing a tax system, tax theorists generally try to create provisions that will raise revenue without significantly altering taxpayers’ economic choices. That is, ideally, taxpayers will act in approximately the same way as they would have in a world without tax.[fn2] But we can’t hit the ideal. The income tax alters people’s actions, because it alters the price calculus. One way is in our work-leisure decisions. Assume with me that I earn $10 an hour. That said, I enjoy not working, too–my leisure is worth $8/hour to me. In the absence of an income tax, if I have a choice between work and leisure, I’ll choose work. Even with a 10% tax, I’ll choose work, because I’ll bring home $9 after taxes, while my leisure is still worth only $8/hour. However, if the income tax is at a 25% rate, I’ll only bring…

Summer 2011 Syllabus

Part of my job as a law professor is to model to students what a transactional attorney does. As part of that, I include in my syllabus a list of things media that they ought to consume in order to understand the world a business lawyer functions in. The list is not exhaustive, by any means, nor should they necessarily read or listen to all of it, but it provides a slice of intelligent commentary on the world I’m teaching them how to enter. If you were preparing people to do what you do, what resources would you recommend? [fn1] And, if you do what I prepare my students to do, what necessary resources am I tragically leaving out? [fn2] Syllabus: Wall Street Journal.  Depending on your politics, you may detest or you may embrace the Opinions section, but the Journal’s business reporting is superb.  (Note that it has a paywall around most of its content; you either need to…

Times & Seasons Welcomes Sam Brunson

Times & Seasons is excited to introduce Sam Brunson as our latest guest blogger.  Sam grew up in the suburbs of San Diego and served a Brazilian mission what seems like a millennium ago.  He went to BYU as an undergrad and found that a freshman saxophone performance major made his eventual English major look like a practical choice.   After toying with teaching critical theory or becoming an author, he did what all good English majors do and chose law school.  At Columbia, he met his wife, got a degree, and got a job as a tax associate at a New York firm.   Several years later, he managed to escape the clutches of big law and landed a job teaching tax and business law at Loyola University Chicago.  While Sam, sadly, does not play much saxophone these days, he and his wife do have two beautiful girls with whom he loves to spend time when he’s not pondering…