Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

As Good as Money in the Bank? Time to Worry More

A friend of mine, an attorney, had a job in California for a year and for convenience opened a bank account there with Wells-Fargo. He paid California income taxes that year, then left California and continued working in another state. He still had over $20,000 in his account. About three years later while he was in California again, he went back to a local branch office and asked to take his money out of his account. No need -- there was nothing left.

He learned that the State of California had assumed he was still working there and should have kept paying state income taxes as he had done one year, so they did the natural thing: estimated how much he should have been paying, then reached into his bank account and took their fare share, which turned out to be everything in the account. He was aghast. He explained (I think this was to a Dept. of Revenue official) that he had never been notified of any problem. Why hadn't he been warned? "Oh, if we warn people, they will move money out of their account so we won't be able to take it." No due process. The State will take it wants when it wants from your bank, based on whatever wild assumptions some bureaucrat makes.

The day before I heard this story from my friend, I was reading a newsletter from Simon Black of SovereignMan.com. His mother, a quiet, normal US citizen who has been a loyal customer of her local bank for 20 years or so, suddenly found her funds had been frozen by the bank. She couldn't make payments or take any money out. She learned that the bank had detected an "unusual transaction" and thus locked down her account. The unusual transaction? A $300 donation to support the Trump campaign. Definitely unusual, but not a direct threat to national security, regardless of how dangerous you think the new President is. I'm not sure how long it took or will take for her to get her money back, but that this can happen at all is troubling.

If your bank account(s) were shut down or emptied by some government or bank official on a power trip, or wiped out by a hacker, would you be able to get by while you tried to resolve the problem? Could you survive for couple of months without access to electronic funds? It's a question you need to ask yourself. Yes, food storage is going to be important in such times. But one of the other vital steps you should take right away is to store some cash in a safe place. Cash is freedom, which is why tyrants these days despise it and paint it as merely the tool of terrorists and drug lords. Cash can't be whittled away by negative interest rates (that insane, horrific idea is spreading to much of the world and may come your way soon) to support the spending dreams of tyrants. There is a war on cash globally, but for now, it's still legal in the US to have it and use it, so I recommend you get some.

Banks in the US are now viewed by the government as the first line of defense in tracking down criminals. They are required to turn over all sorts of personal information to the government and to make all of your funds available for their control, at their whim.The US has been lucky so far, but people all over the world have experienced the dangers of trusting banks. In Malta, a government that had spent way too much needed more, and simply gave itself the right to reach into bank accounts of high-income people (governments love to justify their actions by saying that their theft is only being done on the rich, to make them pay their fair share -- but almost all of us can be defined to be reach when thieves in power get greedy). In Greece and many other nations, economic crisis was met with sudden restrictions on how much could be taken out of a bank account. And in many, perhaps most US banks, if only about 1 or 2% of the average customers want to take out all their money, the bank could be brought to its knees.

In fact, in the US, the total amount of printed currency is estimated to be less than 5% of the digital assets people have, so imagine what would happen if a large number of people wanted to get their hands on actual cash instead of leaving money in a place where bureaucrats, errant bank officials, or hackers with the CIA's ultimate tools could reach in and take everything? There is not enough physical money to handle a relatively small exodus from digital accounts. There is not enough physical cash or bank capital to handle a significant economic crisis or a mild run on the banks.

When your money is in a bank, it's no longer your money being protected by the bank. It's money you have lent to the bank in hopes that it will be there when you need it. It's not enough to trust your local bank officials, even if they are remarkably honest people. You also need to be able to trust your government, and to trust the future of the US economy, if you want to trust that your money in the bank is safe. Until then, recognize that it can all vanish in a hurry, or maybe just a little at a time, but it's not nearly as secure as you might think.

There are other steps to consider. Multiple accounts might help. An overseas account in a much safer bank than typical US banks would be wise, but is now almost impossible for Americans due to the burdensome requirements the US government imposes on foreign banks in the name of cracking down on criminals (FACTA, etc.). There are a few places where it is possible, but generally nobody wants to talk to an American looking to have a Plan B for when the next economic crisis sweeps the States. As always, let me also suggest that if you can, some precious metals can be useful, maybe even stored in an offshore location like Singapore (Simon Black recommends that). And yes, please keep working on your food storage and emergency preparedness.

These things matter and can be a difference between disaster and mere grievance, or the difference between helping your family and your neighbors solve problems in times of trouble rather than being part of the problem.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Creation and God's Love: Hints from a Surprise Encounter with a Geologist

On Sunday I'll be speaking at District Conference for the the Shanghai International District on the topic of the Creation. I'll begin with a journal entry of mine from August 1995:
I'd like to share a recent experience with you that points to the kindness of God and perhaps His desire for us to appreciate the wonders of His artwork in nature. I just got back from a wonderful vacation in the western United States (mostly southern Utah), where the wonders of God's creation can overwhelm the observer. (The majesty of one location -- Cedar Breaks National Monument -- literally brought my wife to tears.) A geologist and relative of mine, Paul Crosby, had taken us on a brief tour around the St. George area, explaining some of the processes that had created such strange beauty. A few days later, my three-year old son and I were walking along a deserted trail (once a road) on Butler Hill, right next to the Wasatch Mountains [near Big Cottonwood Canyon] by Salt Lake City. I was surprised at the huge variety of rocks I was finding -- igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary, in many colors and shapes. I paused and examined the setting and the beautiful mountains and wondered how such variety was possible on that former shore of Lake Bonneville.
As I looked over the valley and recalled the inspiring morning with a geologist a few days earlier, I wished that I could talk to a geologist again to better appreciate that part of God's creation. My son and I then returned to picking through the many rock piles, looking for treasures of beauty. Just moments later, a man and his dog strolled by on that isolated lane. He interrupted us, saying, "I noticed that you are looking at the rocks here." Before I could say anything, he began to explain why there was such a variety of rocks to be found. The road that once went up this hill had been closed off by dumping random truckloads of rocks from around the state of Utah -- whatever rocks Salt Lake County happened to have it its trucks. As a result, there were varieties of lava rock from southern Utah, rocks from the Oquirrh mountain range, granites from Alta Canyon, metamorphic rocks from elsewhere in the Salt Lake area, and even some loads containing Indian artifacts.
I was impressed and asked him how he was so well informed. "I'm a geologist for the State of Utah and have studied this area." Thrilled, I bombarded him with a number of other questions before he had to go, thus learning the identities of many of the rocks that had stirred my curiosity. It was a true treat for me -- and a marvelous blessing.
The Lord may seem to ignore most of our foolish pleas and may choose to let us suffer pain and disappointment for our own good, somehow, but through it all His loving kindness shows in marvelous ways. That gentle but flagrant act of kindness -- sending a geologist to visit me on an isolated stretch of long-closed road -- shows me something about the loving Parent we worship. Not only is He kind, but He wants us to know about His works and appreciate them -- even to the point of sending a geologist our way at just the right time.
Blessings of love, comfort, and knowledge, the tender mercies of the Lord, can come in quiet, easy moments or in times of turmoil even as we are in distress and the powers of darkness rage against us. We may not find the relief we want now in our biggest trials here in mortality, but we can find treasures of knowledge, inspiration and evidences of God's love.

It was in what may have been Joseph Smith's darkest hour, after months of suffering in the cold, gloomy prison called Liberty Jail, when he turned to the Lord in anguish, as recorded in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants from March 1839, and wondered where God was and how He could ignore the cries of the suffering Saints who had been driven from their homes by violent mobs. The Lord answered but did not remove the problems. But He did give assurance and revelation. Interestingly, part of this assurance and revelation dealt with the wonders of the Creation and the details that would be revealed in the future:
26 God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;

 27 Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;

 28 A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.

 29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 30 And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—

 31 All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—

 32 According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest.
God seems to care about the details and wonders of the Creation, and I think we should, too. These words in Section 121 echo a previous revelation from 1833, recorded in Section 101, when the Lord hinted at what would be revealed in the great Millennium about the glory of the Creation. But what good is that to those who will have died already? Do they miss out on those blessings? Section 101 kindly reminds us all of us can participate in those blessings of knowledge and glory and that we need not worry about missing out, though patience will be needed:
32 Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—
 33 Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof—
 34 Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.
 35 And all they who suffer persecution for my name, and endure in faith, though they are called to lay down their lives for my sake yet shall they partake of all this glory.
 36 Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.
The knowledge the Lord wishes to share in the future about the Creation is described as "most precious," and is part of what the Lord describes as "glory" of which we can partake. This earth, this galaxy, this cosmos, are majestic and glorious and to know them is to encounter the glory of God in a sense.  This is knowledge to seek, to yearn for, to treasure, and today, more of that is already available than ever before in human history. What a wonderful time to be alive!

And yet what a trying and difficult time for many, a time that challenges us to do more to bring relief and hope to other, to do more to proclaim peace, to do more to prepare for trouble ahead, to do more to resist the evil and pain that interrupts the joy that should be found in our lives. There are still greater trials ahead for this planet and far more tears to be shed, though none of us will have to descend below what Christ has taken upon Himself in bearing our sins and tasting our pains in His infinite Atonement. The great Creator Himself, the Son of God who carried out the Creation under direction of the Father, also took the pains and anguish of our sins upon Him that He might be able to comfort us and bring true deliverance in the end thus fulfilling the grand purposes of the Creation. That is the greatest source of glory in God's creative work.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cabbie Fail: A New Convert Learns the Blessings of Kindness

Yesterday a new convert in one of the Shanghai area branches shared a story she experienced shortly after her baptism. The woman is from Shanghai, married to a foreigner. When she chose to be baptized, her Chinese parents thought it was a bad idea and were very skeptical. Shortly afterwards, she organized a trip in which she took her parents and husband on a trip to Nanjing.

As part of her detailed preparations to make everything perfect, she had arranged for a cabbie to meet them at the train station and take them to their hotel. The cabbie called 30 minutes before they arrived and said he was waiting. She explained he would need to wait. He waited, but when they arrived they could not find him. This began a lengthy comedy of errors with the cabbie explaining where he was and with them explaining where they were, repeatedly sharing descriptions and even photos of where they were. It was a hot, humid day and after about one hour of frustration trying to find their cabbie, they gave up and took another cab.

Based on some of the details she shared, it sounded like they were at Nanjing South station and the cabbie was at the main Nanjing station to the north, since he mentioned he could see a lake from his location and they could see no sign of a lake. But the old station itself is big, complicated, with messy traffic, and perhaps they were both at the main station.

In any case, the woman told the cabbie that she would pay him electronically. Cabs are often hired using one of a couple different phone apps and payment can then be made electronically. The father objected and said that she should not pay him and that she should give him a bad rating on the app. She should not throwing away her money and treat such bad service with kindness. The woman felt that she might have acted this way before her conversion, but now she felt a desire to be kind to others and recognized that money was not that important. Because of her new faith, she chose to be patient with the cabbie, to pay him for his time and attempted service, and to be forgiving.

Three days later, when it was time to move on, she used a different software tool to order another cab. As she and her family got in, the cabbie remarked that they seemed to have a Shanghai accent and asked if they were from Shanghai. Yes. Then he asked if they were the people that had tried to find him at the Nanjing train station three days earlier. Yes! It was the very same cabbie, out of thousands in Nanjing, a city of 8 million people (yes, 8 million) and thousands of cabs, I would say far more than any American city. Because she had treated hm kindly before, he was happy to see them. She was happy to see him. And if I understood correctly, her parents were happy with what she had done. "We were all happy."

This was a tender mercy of the Lord, in my opinion. An impossible little coincidence to show her family the blessings the Gospel had brought to her life and to remind her, her family, and all of us that the strangers we interact with are our brothers and sisters. We should never use the illusion of anonymity to justify unkindness to another person. We should never justify poor behavior with the delusion that we will never see someone else again. May we be patient with others and always kind. And may we also realize that sometimes the error we think we see in someone else is because we are standing in the wrong place.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Slot Machines and Video Games: What You Need to Know About Their Addictive Design

The lives of some people very close to me have been shaken by one man's long-denied gambling addiction. I can't go into details. As in many cases, there is a complex mix of mitigating and exacerbating factors and I think I can understand what the man is going through and why he feels what he is doing is the right thing for him. But in light of its impact on his family and his career, I wish he had pursued a different path. In light of what I have seen gambling do to others in the States and here in China, I detest that institution and the vermin of the industry who prey on the vulnerable.

The gambling industry's primary source of profit is the slot machine. It is amazing how addicted people become to slot machines, sitting in front of them for hours and hours as their savings or borrowings are whittled away. The Atlantic Monthly has an excellent read about the design of video games and their deliberately designed features aimed at creating and rewarding addiction. Please see "How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts" by John Rosengren. I feel it's important to understand how the Adversary and his corporate allies have so artfully and craftily designed these systems to destroy their victims through addiction. In fact, this would be a good article to discuss with your kids, with your home teaching families (as I have done in one case so far), and others in your ward and circle of friends. It's a painful read because of the gritty details in a few lives shattered by gambling, but I think you will benefit, especially from the background information about the industry and its designs on you and your loved ones.

There's a science to the design of addictive slot machines. A profound understanding of human psychology and the response to various forms of stimulus is employed to keep people hooked. The principles used are similar to those employed in modern video games. They are designed to keep people playing for long periods of time. It's a design that creates addicts. Here in China, where a large fraction of the young men show signs of addiction, it is greatly damaging their lives. Video game addiction is less costly than gambling. There are probably very few suicides and less financial fraud driven by this addiction compared to gambling. But too many people quit advancing intellectually, spiritually, and perhaps even physically (less exercise) as they get pulled into the empty illusory world of video games. (Tip: If you are giving up sleep, work, school, and social interactions in the physical world to spend every possible minute gaming, you may have a problem.)

Many LDS families struggle with this challenge. What are the best practices parents can take to reduce the risk of addiction? Some of the more successful families I know have strict rules to limit TV and games and do much to encourage other activities like reading, sports, and other aspects of a healthy life. What are your suggestions?

Update: Yes, I recognize that there are important differences between gambling games such as slots or video poker and gambling-free computer games. Computer games have been used to teach useful schools, can be wholesome and fun in social settings, etc. But addiction can be devastating. I've seen too many bright people drop out of school, perform poorly at work, and show general lack of motivation for anything except video games. In one case I was close too, a young man with a great new job lost almost everything due to the after effects of research fraud driven by his addiction to a really stupid video game.

Measuring video game addiction is challenging and controversial. Is addiction a genuine problem in just 0.5% of video game players, as mentioned in a valuable article from Psychology Today?  That number seems surprisingly low compared to the number of parents I see who believe that their kids are addicted to video games and compared to the number who seem to me to be messing up their lives with excessive, compulsive video gaming. But perhaps the level of addiction considered there is more extreme, especially given some of the examples of tragedy mentioned there. If not 0.5%, is the level of addiction closer to the 3% or 8% figures from studies mentioned in an article in the Economist? Or is it 50% (here in China, for example), which still may seem low in the eyes of some parents, educators, and bosses frustrated with the vigor-impairing apparent addictions in those they are trying to strengthen and motivate? If you have a reliable measure, let me know.