tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A little fun

Here is a puzzle you can use, guaranteed to dazzle your friends -– just in time for the Holidays!

Ask someone to think of their birthday and tell them that by using math you will guess it correctly! Here’s how it works:

1) Have them think of the month number for their birthday, where January equals 1, February, 2, and so on.

2) Have them multiply the number by 5.

3) Then add 6.

4) Then multiply that total by four.

5) Then add 9.

6) Then multiply this total by 5.

7) Finally, have them add to that total the day they were born on. (If they were born on the 16th for example, they would add 16.)

Ask the person to give you the total. In your head (you have to be good at math too!), subtract 165 and you will have the month and day they were born on. (418, for example, would be April 18.) Works every time!

(I picked this up some time ago from another blog, although I can't remember where. If the originator leaves a comment, I would be happy to give appropriate credit!)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Catholic education book raises thoughtful points

As the father of three children in Catholic school, I was intrigued by the publication of Steve Kellmeyer’s latest book, “Designed to Fail; Catholic Education in America” (Bridegroom Press, 2005). Although I am fortunate to have the opportunity to send our children to a very sound local school, I know most parents who want their children to receive a good Catholic education do not have that opportunity. Such parents typically spend a lot of money on parochial school tuition but receive only marginally Christian, largely secularist teaching for their children.

Kellmeyer’s book goes a long way toward describing why that is. He lays out the history of the parochial school system in the United States. It is, unfortunately, largely a reaction to the public school system. So rather than getting a truly Catholic education, most Catholic schools simply offer the same fare as the public schools, with a religion class added to the curriculum.

Kellmeyer makes a lot of interesting points. He says that the institutional school model was started in Prussia, largely to turn independent-minded farmers into soldiers who would take orders. Most of the rest of the world copied that model in order to fuel the industrial revolution. First in England and then in the United States, industrialists promoted a school system that would produce docile employees who would show up to work on schedule and do what their bosses tell them.

He also notes that the Catholic Bishops made a huge mistake turning to religious orders to provide teachers. Bishops have little control over most orders yet nuns from these orders were given free reign to teach what they wanted in the schools. Sometimes that was Catholic, but a lot of times it wasn’t. As many of the religious orders fell away from the teachings of the Magisterium, they began to fall apart themselves. Bishops could no longer rely on inexpensive teaching labor from committed religious who saw their role as vocational; the Bishops turned to professionals who needed a living wage, further mirroring the secular model. This move has hopelessly raised the cost of Catholic education to the point today where most Catholic schools are a drain on parish resources while still carrying tuitions that many parents find difficult to pay.

Perhaps most serious, however, is the charge Kellmeyer makes about the way bishops inserted themselves between parents and children as the child’s rightful teacher. Catholic teaching always clearly has stated that parents are the first educators of their children. Kellmeyer asserts that the American bishops somehow forgot that teaching and took such responsibility away from the parents. Most Catholic parents would say they are delegating certain teaching authority to the teachers at the Catholic school, not turning over the responsibility entirely. Nonetheless, Kellmeyer’s charge has got me to thinking about the seriousness of my role as the primary educator for my children.

While Kellmeyer raises several interesting points, the book has shortcomings. The main problem is he never really proposes a solution. The closest thing he offers is that parishes should close their schools and use that money instead to fund weekly seminars for adults conducted by professional speakers. It isn’t a very practical suggestion and it lacks credibility given Kellmeyer’s own status as a professional speaker.

I also think Kellmeyer is unduly hard on the American bishops, and I think he has romanticized the agrarian era in this country. He claims that pre-industrial America was a time when people learned to read on their own and everyone learned a profession by apprenticeship. This strikes me as exaggeration; I don’t think he fairly considers the numerous hardships that went along with rural living pre-20th Century.

People who are seriously interested in Catholic education will find this book worthwhile, but I think casual readers will find it tedious and hopeless. Nonetheless, I would encourage people to work through the book’s 221 pages and think about the major points Kellmeyer raises.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gratitude has never been more important

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and there has never been a country that needs a day devoted to gratitude more than the 21st Century United States of America. Gratitude is the virtue which can save us from drowning in excessive want.

Even though Americans have more stuff than any other people on the planet, we want more than most other people. From a young age, Americans are taught to want -– to want what we don’t have and to want more of what we already have. The Madison Avenue advertising professionals get at children through commercials during those Saturday morning cartoons. Advertisements in magazines and elsewhere are very influential on teens. I heard one economist say recently that the average American teenager spends $480 per month!

These kids and teens, of course, grow into adults who want more than anyone. They want bigger cars, fancier houses, better clothes, tastier food, more exotic travel -– you name it, we want it! Never mind that no one really needs any of this stuff, nor can most of us afford it. Debt levels are at record highs, yet people keep buying and buying and buying. Reason has been replaced by materialism and practicality has been replaced by consumerism. Sometimes I think we are in the process of spending ourselves straight to hell.

This is why Thanksgiving Day is so important. This is a day we say "thank you" to God for what we have. We have set aside one day a year to think about what we have instead of what we want. And most of us have plenty. Even the poorest Americans live better than most people who have ever walked the face of the earth. Typical Americans live richly blessed lives. Many of us are lucky enough to have family and friends, a home and a job, a college education, good food and simple entertainment. These are tremendous blessings.

I am convinced that the more one focuses on what they have, the less they are likely to focus on what they want. The more a person thanks God for the blessings of life, the less likely a person is to gripe about what he doesn’t have. When you take some time to think about all that you have, the idea of wanting a faster car or a bigger TV set really seems pretty silly. When you think about what a tremendous blessing your spouse and kids are, you realize that it doesn’t really matter whether you have a new set of golf clubs or the latest computer gadget.

Someone once said it is better to want what you have than to want what you don’t have. I think that is the definition of gratitude -– want what you have. Be grateful for your blessings.

Gratitude is a virtue which can be cultivated in every human heart. Gratitude does not necessarily come naturally; you have to work at it. Begin by saying "thank you" at every opportunity. Then take a little time everyday to think about all the blessings in your life. Think about all that you have. Look around you and realize that all that stuff is only there by the grace of God. We can start to do this on Thanksgiving Day. If we do this everyday, we can break out of this country’s seemingly endless, materialist, downward spiral.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Adoption in a consumer culture

Should I be surprised that in this ultra-consumer culture a person can now actually buy a baby? That’s right, a baby.

There’s a clinic in San Antonio, Texas, called the Abraham Center of Life, which has started the first human embryo bank. Reportedly for $10,000, infertile couples can purchase a pair of donor-created embryos. They are shipped to the couple’s primary medical clinic for implantation. Both are implanted with the idea that only one will ultimately survive. The center boasts a success rate of about 70 percent.

The center screens donors, both men and women; it claims to accept only people with “clean medical backgrounds.” The center requires male donors to be college educated. The center apparently even grades the embryos according to some measure it has created for “quality.”

Should I be surprised that in this culture, one can purchase an embryo in pretty much the same fashion that one would purchase an automobile? Cohabitation long ago turned marriage into a consumer experience. We’ve all heard the argument: “You’d test drive a car before buying it, why wouldn’t you test out a spouse before getting married?” So I guess it should not come as a surprise that the natural fruits of marriage –- children -– should be reduced to little more than a commodity as well.

Infertility is an emotional roller coaster; my wife and I have struggled with it for years. The culture advocates a medical resolution; we can, after all, create life in a Petri dish. During the last several years, the approach typically has been to use sperm and ova from the couple. Initiate conception in the laboratory and then implant for the gestation of pregnancy. If one of those initial components is inadequate, a donor can be tapped. The Abraham Center is the first clinic in the United States that I know of to use donor sources for both components of the conception.

These medical approaches do produce children, but I really think they represent dabbling in places where man does not belong. The question about creating life in the laboratory has never really been can we do it? but should we do it? I am so grateful to the Catholic Church for its clear direction on this question. The Church teaches that a marital relationship brings husband and wife together -– physically -– for the equal purposes of loving one another and for having children. Official Church documents use the terms “procreative” and “unitive.”

When we were first considering our options for addressing our infertility, we listened to doctors explain the medical options. Most of those options violated the unitive component of marriage. In other words, they offered procreation without the actually physical union of the husband and wife. Although we wanted the experience of conceiving a child, we didn’t want to be our own church. We did not want to make up our own theology. We wanted to live the faith, given to us by Jesus Christ, through His worldwide Church. So we got off the medical path fairly early in our marital journey.

And it was the best thing we ever did. We didn’t know anything about adoption at the time, but we studied and learned. Ultimately, over a period of seven years, we adopted four children. We have beautiful children and we thank God for the vocation of parenthood that He has given us. Sometimes I have referred to adoption as our “plan B,” but of course it isn’t my plans that matter. Maybe for us, this was God’s “plan A.”

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Today, November 18, is National Adoption Day. Tomorrow, November 19, will be the fourth anniversary of the date our youngest child was presented to us in an orphanage in South America. Adoption has been a magnificent blessing to our family. I pray for couples who are struggling with infertility. I hope more will consider adoption; the need is great. The rewards are even greater.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election thoughts

Tim Pawlenty’s re-election to governor renews my faith in Minnesotans. Generally, when an incumbent runs, we Minnesotan’s re-elect the person unless they have been found guilty of some major malfeasance.

Pawlenty has generally done a good job. When he took office nearly four years ago, the budget was $4.5 billion in the red and he managed to get us back in the black. I have many liberal friends who hate Pawlenty; they say he slashed budgets without regard for the people who rely on state funds. Those criticisms, of course, would have been leveled against any Republican incumbent; they certainly are not reserved for Pawlenty.

Governing is a tricky endeavor, requiring the careful weighing of several interests. No matter what you do, there are going to be groups of people who hate you. I have had the opportunity to be in several meetings with Gov. Pawlenty and I have gotten the impression he considers all sides; he is cordial and level-headed.

That demeanor is in stark contrast to Mike Hatch, who ran against him and lost. Hatch has coveted the governorship since the late 1980s when he was the state’s commissioner of commerce. I have had the opportunity to personally see Hatch in action and I have never been impressed. I saw him lose his temper at one meeting; he shouted at the group and walked out of the room. I am glad we did not elect this blatant opportunist.

Pawlenty, in fact, has been a pleasant break from a string of hot-head governors. Rudy Perpich, Arnie Carlson, and Jesse Ventura were all emotionally volatile and apt to lash out at reporters and colleagues with seemingly no provocation. Hatch would have brought that behavior back to the spot light had he been elected.

I found the election results for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional district to be interesting. Keith Ellison won with about 135,000 votes, which is about 85,000 fewer than Marty Sabo got when he won two years ago. Granted, that was a presidential election year when the turnout is usually greater, but even if you go back to 2002, Sabo won with 171,000 votes. Ellison challengers Alan Fine and Tammy Lee each got about 50,000 votes. Even if you throw in the votes that went to the Green Party candidate, the challengers don’t combine enough votes to come in ahead of Ellison. It proves what local newspaper columnist James Lileks said of Minnesota’s Fifth: “The Democrats could put up a canned ham and it would win.”

Andrew Favorite, a buddy of mine, ran against Ellison in the primary for the Democratic Party endorsement in September. Andy finished well back in the pack; I don’t think many people took his candidacy seriously. But I applaud him. Andy is one of these guys who just got fed up with all the non-sense going on in Washington and decided to exercise his civic rights and run for office. Getting elected, of course, takes more than conviction. If Andy runs again for anything and takes the time to build a serious campaign, I’d vote for him again. (In Minnesota, Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary, and vice versa.)

Two other lesser-known candidates caught my eye this election cycle. Erik Thompson is from a small town in western Minnesota called Milan. He was a candidate in the Fifth District for the Congressional seat but mid-summer switched to being a candidate in the Seventh District, which includes his hometown. He is a peace activist who was running on a platform solely centered on the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. He lost in the Democratic primary in September to Collin Peterson, who won re-election yesterday. Thompson and I would be polar opposites on the philosophical spectrum, but I admire his conviction.

The other interesting candidate was Ben Powers of the Constitution Party who ran for U.S. Senate against Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who won, and Republican Mark Kennedy. Powers is brutally honest with his ultra-conservative views, but again, I am impressed by someone who speaks his mind no matter what others might think.

I was shocked by the news out of our neighboring state to the south. U.S. Rep. Jim Leach lost to Dave Loebsack. Leach was in his 15th term and is probably one of the smartest people in Congress. (He is the guy behind the internet gambling bill I wrote about in September.) Leach apparently got caught up in the title wave that washed several Republicans out of office this election. That is somewhat ironic given that Leach was one of the few Republicans to vote against the Bush Administration’s plan to go to war in Iraq in 2002.

Of course, I was disappointed the voters of South Dakota struck down the state’s anti-abortion law. But I have to believe that perhaps the timing for such a law just wasn’t right. If pro-life advocates have any hope of ever seeing Roe vs. Wade over-turned, we are going to need at least one more new Supreme Court justice. If the South Dakota law had stood and gone to the current court, it probably would have been struck down. I will continue to grieve every child lost to abortion.

Now that the mid-term election is passed, the 2008 presidential election begins. There will be special attention on Minnesota as that election unfolds with the Republican National Convention set for Saint Paul in 2008. Republican Norm Coleman, Minnesota’s other U.S. Senator, is likely to find himself in a race against Al Franken, who really hasn’t been very funny since his Saturday Night Live days. In fact, I'm not even sure he was funny then.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Thoughts a day before the election

I care about the elections and, like all good citizens, I plan to vote tomorrow, but my expectations about the possibilities for government are low. My liberal friends expect government to fix a lot of problems that it simply is not equipped to fix.

Many people believe government officials lead our culture, but the truth is our culture leads our government. Elected officials are among the most reactionary people on earth. Once the culture is moving in a particular direction, expect our elected officials to reflect that direction.

Whenever I contemplate the tension between those who want limited government and those who want expansive government, I think of chapter 8 from First Samuel in the Old Testament. This is the chapter where the Israelites ask Samuel for a king. Up until that point, the Israelites had been ruled by a network of Judges, but now they want a king. Samuel doesn’t like the idea, but God tells him to give them what they want. So Samuel says they can have a king but warns them about the demands that a king will make on them:

“He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When this takes place, you yourselves will complain about the king you have chosen…

We don’t call our elected officials “kings,” (although former Gov. Jesse Ventura thought he was king of Minnesota), but I think Samuel’s warning is valid today. Government has a great price. We end up working a long time to pay for an ever-expanding government sector. And every election cycle, we complain about those we chose in the last election.

I believe in democracy; it’s the best form of government anyone has come up with. But my point is, government has its limits. It can handle some responsibilities, like fixing roads and maintaining fire departments, but it is unrealistic to ask too much of government, like arranging for universal health care and guaranteeing everyone a good job. There are a lot of things that we have to resolve on our own -– starting in our own homes, with our own families. That is the basis of our culture. And culture will always be many steps ahead of government.