Things To Act
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Theological Barriers to Space Colonization?
Adam Greenwood recently wrote on why he thinks LDS should be interested in space travel, giving two broad reasons along with some theological themes: 1) that a new frontier would enable us to create a politically and geographically distinct Zion, and 2) given that space colonization is inevitable, LDS should try to get in early to be able to influence those communities. I find this line of argument interesting, in part because past speculation has led me to question both of those premises.

As to the first, it seems unlikely that the Church is going to be interested in devoting any degree of resources to building a distinct Zion nation any time soon, and it tends to look with disfavor on any members who might want to try to found a separate distinct community on their own without prophetic guidance. Perhaps the only reason this is so is the lack of viable frontier, but my impression is that this is not the only determining variable—our interest in taking the gospel to all the world demands that we employ our resources to that end in every country, and many of the reasons that gathering and geographical isolation were needed in the early days of the Church no longer apply. The model of gathering to Zion (one place) has been replaced with the model of gathering to Zion (stakes spread throughout the world). Perhaps it will change again, but I’ve seen little indication thus far.

The second reason is also something I’ve wondered about for awhile. For whatever reason, the picture I have in my head of the flow of history seems incompatible with extensive space colonization. Of course, many pieces of that picture are based on CES teachings about the run-up to the Second Coming, which teachings (based on various CESers interpretations of ambiguous scriptures) I’ve become more skeptical of over the years. And I certainly don’t mean anything as banal as the “God would look on space travel as blasphemy/If God had meant men to fly, he wouldn’t have invented the automobile…” line of argument. It’s more that it seems that whatever God’s plan for the world, the end wrap-up would come before space colonization could get very far.

The picture I have is something along the lines of increased wars and tensions leading up to the Armageddon conflict, a showdown in the Middle East, and then the Second Coming, at which the wicked will be burnt and the Earth returned to ‘paradisiacal glory’ through the Millennium, following which the Earth will be celestialized. Absent from this picture are nations which don’t take part through being conveniently off-planet and out of range.

Part of the reason that space colonies don’t seem to fit stems from the fact that scripture seems to treat the planetary unit as important, for whatever reason.
Moses 1 teaches that many inhabited earths exist (29) but that we only need to worry about this one (35). D&C 130 teaches that souls seem to 'belong' to one planet (5) and about the celestialization of the Earth (9).

So the broader picture seems to encompass many inhabited worlds, but without provisions for communication between them. As to whether these worlds (as well as the already-perfected worlds further along in the cycle) are in this universe or others, we may not know for sure—but if they are in this universe, it seems unlikely that God would allow us to come in contact with them [though one semi-related case is interesting to note: the Jaredites, under a pre-Law of Moses dispensation, were for a brief period geographically and temporally contemporaneous with the Law of Moses Mulekites and Nephites, which could have led to all sorts of interesting problems if the cultures had been allowed to intersect—different commandments required, different prophets with different lines of authority, etc.]

In any event, for these reasons I can’t seem to make the idea of space colonization fit comfortably into my theological framework (as opposed to my sci-fi fan framework, from which I’m all in favor of going full speed ahead).

Bias or Incompetence?
The DU front page leads today with Approval at all-time low for Bush. Unfortunately, our plucky DU reporter who's recycling the story from the NYT either didn't get the memo or doesn't care that the NYT isn't the best place to rely on for one's news. You would think that DU reporters would be capable of a few minutes of net research, but evidently, in their quest to uphold the historic standards of the Daily Universe, they can't achieve either timeliness or accuracy.

Kausfiles [standing link not available, scroll down] analyzes the NYT story:
Kerry dropped seven points in a month...
But the Times coverage isn't really that bad. It's worse! Soxblog also busts Nagourney and Elder for what appears to be dissembling. They report, in the very first sentence of their piece, that
"President Bush's job approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll."
But if you look at the previous poll results listed in the Times web site, you learn that a month ago Bush's approval rating was a point lower and his disapproval rating was a point higher. Bush has actually gained in the past month. It doesn't appear to be, you know, true that his "approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency." It was worse last month. The same goes for Bush's favorability ratings, which were lower last month (36 favorable/47 unfavorable) than this month (39 favorable/45 unfavorable)...
Readers are supposed to read those charts for trends, but somehow Nagouney and Elder are allowed to ignore them in order to deceptively pluck out their anti-Bush theme.

RCP has more:
This time around ... the CBS/NYT is again one of the only polls in the most recent grouping showing Kerry leading Bush - though it shows a big move toward Bush and is considerably closer to the overall average as two other recent polls (IBD/TIPP and Rasmussen) have the race tied.

One could write the DU's story off as simple incompetence, but then how to account for the gratuitous Moore/F911 reference?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Ultimatums and Justifiable Use of Force
Analyzing the ending of Brigham City (discussed below, spoilers there and here) got me thinking about the way ultimatums interact with using force.

In the scene in question, the hero has finally discovered the identity of the serial killer, and confronts him in his home, where the SK is cleaning his gun. During the course of their Heated Emotional Discussion, the SK is busy reassembling the gun, obviously not a good thing for Our Hero. The hero tells him a couple of times to stop, or to put the gun down, but the SK doesn’t (though in fairness to the hero, the conversation they were having was rather on the distracting side). The eventual resolution, of course, is quite predictable, though the gore is tastefully kept off-camera.

It’s interesting to look at the incentives here. The hero, not being particularly bloodthirsty, wants to avoid shooting the SK if at all possible. The SK, on the other hand, evidently prefers escape to death to capture. The hero doesn’t know the SK’s preferences, of course, but is strongly conditioned not to fire if it’s at all avoidable. The SK knows that the hero is extremely reluctant to shoot. The net result of these preference structures ends up being that the SK ignores the hero’s orders to put the gun away, and the hero risks his life by waiting until the last possible moment to fire. The hero makes several useless ultimatums, each less credible than the one before, before the bloody end.

This seems to have strong parallels to international relations, though the comparisons are, of course, oversimplifications, and complicated by the nature of attempting to assign moral values to collective actions. Nevertheless, suppose a ‘good’ country (or, if you prefer, the UN) knows that a ‘bad’ country is guilty of some atrocity—human rights violations, treaty violations, harming a citizen or citizens of the ‘good’ country, etc. Oversimplifying the ‘good’ country’s choices, it can either ignore the problem, issue an ultimatum, or respond with force [or perhaps apply economic or diplomatic pressure, but we’ll assume for purposes of the analysis that those have been tried and didn’t work]. The ‘bad’ country knows that the ‘good’ country doesn’t like using force. Thus, if an ultimatum is issued, the ‘bad’ country is likely to push the envelope, if not outright ignore it.

The ‘good’ country thus seems to have a few options. It can make it a policy to have an extremely lenient standard of what it chooses to complain about in other countries, preferring to ignore problems rather than getting sucked into the dilemma. It can make it a policy to issue ultimatums, but revert to the ‘ignore’ setting if the problem doesn’t go away. It can issue ultimatums, but not enforce them until the last possible moment, whatever that is defined as. Or it can either use force to stop atrocities, or issue only one ultimatum before using force.

It seems possible to construct a moral worldview to justify any of these possibilities, depending on one’s beliefs about the use of force, or about the issuance of noncredible ultimatums. One could argue for the ‘total ignore’ option by citing instances the importance of turning the other cheek, or the folly of getting involved in international affairs. One could argue for the ‘ultimatum, then ignore’ option for the same reasons, with the pragmatic (if dishonest) reasoning that the ultimatum might be obeyed, and no harm comes from trying it. Supporters of the fourth option (always follow through) would disagree, however, arguing that 100% enforcement is the only way one’s ultimatums will be believed, and the ability to issue credible ultimatums will do more to deter bad behavior and thus justify the rare uses of force the result from this policy. The third option (‘last possible minute’) can be seen as either foolhardy or self-sacrificing (‘we’ll let them get one shot in before responding’).

Many of the recent foreign policy disputes seem to stem from disagreements about which model is best, or which model describes reality. Supporters of the Iraq invasion claim that the U.S.’s previous approach was effectively policy two—16 ignored UN ultimatums that didn’t appreciably change Sadaam’s behavior. Invading Iraq, in this view, was justified because Sadaam was ‘assembling the gun’ of WMDs, and we had to stop him before he could shoot us (or innocent civilians, in practical terms). Supporters further claim that the U.S. can now make credible threats—as in the Libya situation.

Opponents of the Iraq war seem to fall into two rough camps. One camp is largely opposed to the use of force in any circumstances, and one seems to prefer the third option—wait until the last possible moment (we will ignore, for purposes of this analysis, those who vehemently oppose force by Republican presidents, but don’t seem to mind Democratic intervention). Those who prefer the ‘last possible moment’ argue that acting ‘preemptively’ is unjustifiable, and force should be avoided until the last possible moment, however defined.

I think any of these worldviews can be justified, given certain moral premises. However, there are generally high transaction costs to switch from one to another. Each course has its risks, as well. Reliance on force can lead to mistakes—issuing an ultimatum when it isn’t necessary, or being forced to carry out a foolish ultimatum, or generally abusing one’s power. It also relies on counterfactuals for justification—‘it would have been worse if we’d waited.’ Reliance on pacifism can lead to large numbers of innocents getting hurt in the name of the country feeling good about itself. Waiting until the last moment to use force may allow one to avoid some of the mistakes of the force-happy alternative, but it also treats minor violations of rights as inconsequential, and sends confusing signals about what countries can and can’t expect to get away with (as well as encouraging low levels of ‘bad’ behavior that don’t provoke a response).

I’m not entirely sure where I fall politically. Currently, I lean toward a model in which one should issue ultimatums carefully, but rigorously enforce them once issued. However, I can see why others might feel differently.

Perhaps the moral question at stake is whether violation of an ultimatum, once given, is sufficient to justify a forceful response. In BC terms, would the cop be justified in shooting once he had said ‘put down the gun or I’ll shoot,’ and the SK hadn’t put down the gun? One can argue on the one hand that refusal to comply with the ultimatum is evidence of bad intentions; one can argue on the other hand that the ultimatum itself may have been immoral or unwise, and that the immoral action (shooting before the danger materialized) is not justified simply because one promised to do it.

In any event, it seems to me that we run risks no matter what we do, but that the more we communicate our reluctance to use force, the more emboldened our enemies will feel. Thus I wonder how those who are strident in their pacifism deal with questions of enemy incentives and ultimatums.

Brigham City
So I finally got around to seeing Brigham City (which might have been the last thing on my List of Things I Missed On the Mission To Get Around To Seeing, come to think of it). Some observations [Spoilers, both minor and major will likely follow]:

*Nearer My God to Thee is not a sacrament hymn.
*Bishops are married; a bishop whose wife died would almost certainly be released, particularly in a town with plenty of other worthy and capable men.
*It’s hard to figure out how the Sunday School lesson depicted related to the D&C, which was the curriculum for the year the movie was set in.

Okay, that last one was fairly nitpicky (and the first could, I suppose, be a doctrinally questionable regional variation), but I think the fact that I noticed these things (and possibly others that slip my mind) is interesting. It seems there’s been a lot of hype about making “Mormon” movies, which can mean many different things. If the particular definition we’re working with means making movies (or other forms of art) about ordinary, faithful LDS people, I think it’s probably a worthy goal. However, every mistaken detail is going to make the work ring less true for the LDS audience. Having seen few quality LDS films makes it hard for me to tell how much of a problem this might be. God’s Army had some of the same difficulties—the DL interviewing his own investigator, a strange dearth of missionary interaction with members, etc. Some of these are caused by logistical problems—not being able to use Church facilities—and some seem to be caused by plot convenience (which is where it’s more questionable, IMO). In any event, it was only a minor problem in BC.

Other implausibilities can be explained as characterization, I suppose, as it’s a time-honored tradition that Characters In Suspense Movies Are Required to Act Like Idiots At Least Part of the Time. So the town’s entire public safety force, and the overseeing FBI agents, didn’t care about the Fourth Amendment. That’s probably sadly plausible, for a small town with no real crime problem. More troubling was the fact that the hero didn’t call for help before going to the Final Confrontation. Yes, it’s in character that he would want to handle it himself, but it was profoundly stupid, as if he had gotten himself killed (and it looked close to 50-50 odds at the end), the serial killer would have likely managed to escape, possibly killing again in the process.

The movie was very effective on several points, including building suspense. Interesting, in light of previous discussion on movie violence, was how little violence and gore Dutcher chose to show. We see a few blood-splattered objects, a few photographs of bloodied victims (not in close up), and a couple of violent moments. I think the most disturbing violent image of the film is probably the convenience store sequence. Seeing the bound and gagged girl, and seeing the gloved hand bring the gun to the deputy’s head before fading on the gunshot packed the most punch of any scene in the movie in terms of the immediacy and horror of the violence. Was this necessary to the movie? On the one hand, it communicated quick clearly the lengths to which the killer would go; on the other hand, it was quite disturbing.

The misfire, I thought, in the building of suspense was the number of false leads. Not being overly familiar with the murder mystery movie genre, I’m not sure how valid this complaint is, but I tend to think that even misdirection should be plausibly important instead of blatant trickery. I want to trust that the director is going to show me what is important, and not have to put up with intentional deceit. Thus, some of the scenes, particularly toward the end, seemed wrong—all of the shots of the one suspect loading his rifle and ominously approaching the sleeping woman were irrelevant to the outcome, and seemed dishonest. Yes, misdirection has its place, but it’s a fine line between allowing the audience to come to its own conclusions and deliberately deceiving them. If I want to trust the omniscient director/narrator who’s showing me the important scenes of the story, I don’t want him throwing in irrelevant scenes or trying to manipulate me into thinking something false.

A better way to build suspense might have featured more interactions in which the townspeople clearly distrust and suspect one another. There were a couple of scenes of this nature, but probably the longest—between the FBI woman with the flat tire and the construction manager—packed less of a punch because the FBI woman is an Outsider, and suspicious of everyone anyway.

The one really effective scene of foreshadowing, though, was the target practice scene. It was also about the only moment that I actually correctly suspected the identity of the serial killer before the end, with the ironic “can such a person be forgiven” conversation. It also communicated the relative skill with guns that added to the suspense at the end.

Speaking of which, the ending confrontation raises its own interesting questions, one of which, I think, has an easy answer. One has to wonder why the hero doesn’t stop the killer from assembling the gun, but given that we know he walks with a brace, it’s entirely plausible that he doesn’t want to get within physical sparring range, which means all he can do is point his gun and threaten. This leads to a different set of moral questions, but I think I’ll address those elsewhere.

The end confrontation was also powerful, I thought, in the way it humanized, to a degree, the killer. The conversation, with its mix of contrition, self-loathing, and taunting, leaves you unsure whether to consider the killer seriously sick and in need of help or seriously evil and in need of killing—and either way, it’s highly disturbing.

But disturbing isn't necessarily bad, given that A) life is often disturbing, and B) art that helps us understand, deal with, or think about life is often useful.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Hatch Drops Proposed Laissez-Faire Marriage Amendment
Also from the SLTrib article linked below:
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has dropped plans to write his own constitutional amendment to allow state legislatures to decide if they will legally honor gay marriages performed in another state, throwing his full support behind a version drafted by Republican colleagues that forbids states from recognizing any same-sex marriage.
Hatch didn't specify why he shelved a plan he announced in March to write an amendment that did not include a definition of marriage as "a union of a man and woman" into the Constitution, as the Allard bill does. He had said it would be easier to win Senate passage of a resolution that did not include the definition but gave states the right to buck the "full faith and credit clause" of the Constitution and refuse to recognize marriages that may be deemed legal in other states. Allard opposed Hatch's approach, saying it could actually allow states to legalize polygamy, and Republican leadership has been working to present the image of GOP members united behind Allard's Federal Marriage Amendment.
"It's coming down to this one amendment and I'm willing to -- I'm co-sponsor of this amendment and I will vote for it," Hatch said.

Sometimes quashing a moderate alternative is necessary to get everyone on board to pass a successful policy breakthrough. Other times, the breakthrough will not pass, when a compromise proposal might have. My sense is the FMA probably resembles the former situation more than the latter.

The FMA can be framed as an extreme alternative that undercuts states' rights and (however unjust the accusation may be) prevents states from even enacting civil unions. Hatch's proposal, on the other hand, could be framed solely as a means of stopping a runaway judiciary. Hatch's proposal would be easier to use to embarrass politicians who claim that no amendment is necessary to block SSM, while the FMA gives them plenty of rhetorical cover.

In addition, the average American voter may prefer a situation such as that created by Hatch's amendment, but if forced to chose between a status quo sliding toward SSM and the FMA, may prefer the status quo. Assuming that the American voter has preferences H > SQ > FMA, and that the average marriage conservative prefers FMA > H > SQ (as H at least blocks SSM in conservative states, if allowing it in liberal ones), conservatives may be shooting themselves in the foot by holding out for FMA.

On the other hand, it could be that some of those in power prefer to complain about SSM rather than try to prevent it from spreading (similar to the cynical view of abortion politics, for instance, which holds that the last thing anti-abortion politicians want is abortion laws with teeth, as they would either be unsuccessful and unpopular or deprive the politicians of a surefire campaign issue).

Governor Romney Renounces Pioneer Forbearers?
SLTrib article:
But the hearing's star witness, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, cited Utah's territorial battle with the federal government over polygamy as an example of when federal intervention in state marriage policy is warranted and necessary.
"There was a long time ago a state that considered the practice of polygamy [legal] and as I recall the federal government correctly stepped in and said, 'That is not something the state should decide,' " Romney told the committee. "We have a federal view on marriage; this should not be left to an individual state."
Later in the hearing, responding to Democratic skepticism that marriage faces an imminent threat demanding prompt constitutional countermeasures, Romney again drew a parallel with polygamy, saying if Massachusetts suddenly legalized plural marriage, he suspected Congress would recognize the need for an immediate constitutional amendment.

Desnews doesn't quite cover that quote:
Romney reminded him that the federal government outlawed polygamous marriages once permitted in Utah, and the Supreme Court upheld the ban.
"If my state had begun polygamous marriages," Romney said, "and we were providing polygamous marriages right now, I would believe we would recognize that there was a need for a constitutional amendment to prevent that. I would certainly support an immediate constitutional amendment to prevent that."
He said it makes sense to do the same to stop the spread of same-sex marriage. He added, "I think the federal government and the people of the United States have an interest in having a marriage definition that is consistent across the nation."

Transcripts of Romney's prepared remarks are available online, but I didn't come across a transcript of the Q&A, which is evidently where this came from. Romney, as quoted in the Trib, is somewhat hard to follow--after all, he confuses the sequence of events, as the state of Utah never allowed polygamy (plural marriages had been stopped before the Manifesto was issued, six years before the territory achieved statehood). I suppose it's possible that he meant (and the Trib declined to report his clarifying remarks) that the federal government was 'correct' to insist on a uniform definition of marriage, but that its actions in enforcing that definition were not 'correct.' However, that's a generous reading of his comment, and that position is not necessarily logically consistent.

Barring any sort of clarification, though, Romney appears to be on the record as considering the 19th-century federal government's actions against polygamy--including denial of voting rights based on belief, seizure of the Church's property, and imprisoning men for refusing to abandon their dependents--to be 'correct.'

One can argue about whether or not polygamy would have ended (and in what timeframe) absent federal intervention. One can argue about whether the Church's present uniform ban on polygamy is likely to change. One can argue about to what degree the Lord allowed political factors to influence the timing of the Manifesto. Members can and do, in good faith, have different ideas about these questions.

However, I find it difficult to understand how any member who thinks that the Church is led by God can question the fact the polygamy was a divine commandment taught and administered by four prophets in this dispensation. Absent the announcement of a radical doctrinal revolution from Church headquarters, the official position of the Church continues to be that the practice of entering, under proper ecclesiastical authority, into plural marriages was valid from the early days of the Church to ~1887 (and for a few years after outside the U.S.). Since the federal government at the time decided to directly oppose the inspired leadership of the Church, I find it difficult to understand how any member could say that the federal government was correct (and by implication, that the Church was incorrect).

I don't think that the Church has anything to apologize for with regards to polygamy. The same cannot be said of the federal government in the 1880s.

I suppose the generous interpretation might be that the federal government should have made it clear that Utah would not be admitted as a state until it renounced polygamy, and left it to the territory to decide. However, I don't know how tenable this position is, given that the antipolygamy persecution had been escalating steadily for decades by the time of the Manifesto. The feds were not interested in merely preventing legal plural marriages--they were interested in breaking up families and forcing people to renounce their religious beliefs. It's hard to argue for the moral example of a generation that went to such extremes in fighting against the 'relic of barbarism' that isolated Utahan polygamous marriages presented.

Of course, while many attempted analogies between polygamy and same-sex marriage are inaccurate, some superficial similarities do exist. A particularly ironic twist is evident in the latest developments. While the collected weight of the federal government in the 1880's was trying to break up existing marriages, once the Church published the Manifesto, persecution largely dried up. In exchange for renouncing future plural marriages, the feds agreed to stop trying to break up existing marriages, and many families lived in polygamous situations for years after the Manifesto. Fast-forwarding to 2004, the MA SC Runaway Four's tactical success (by refusing to stay its decision until MA had a chance to amend its Constitution to restore the intent of the majority, if necessary) has led to a situation in which legal same-sex marriages have gone forward. Gov. Romney has now gone on the record not only wrapping himself in mantle of Edmunds-Tucker, but also calling for the breakup of existing 'marriages,' which even the federal government stopped trying for after 1890. He also implicitly endorses an amendment that would end polygamous marriages in the same circumstances--circumstances that are not precisely parallel to territorial Utah ~1885, but are similar enough to be ironic. The fact that we Latter-day Saints consider the polygamous marriages to have been valid and the same-sex 'marriages' to be a sham does not dispel the irony observed by those who do not share our beliefs.

My ancestors were persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs, including their belief in polygamy. I find it troubling that a prominent LDS public official would invoke the legacy of their persecutors to justify present political proposals, however well-intentioned.

Primary Results
Huntsman, Swallow, and Cannon advance to the general.

Sunday, June 20, 2004
EC PR Reform II
In my post analyzing potential electoral college reform below, I conclude that switching to a PR system in initiative states likely would hurt Democrats, which obviously implies that it would help Republicans. A logical follow-up question, therefore, is to ask why Republicans don't embrace this strategy. After all, not only does it look likely to help them, but they also have fewer Blue and Blue-leaning states to target. Forcing a switch in California alone would be hugely advantageous, and even forcing national Democrats to spend money trying to fight it off might have its benefits. However, I can think of several reasons why Republicans (generally, not necessarily specific Republicans) might think this to be a bad idea.

*First of all, this year's evidence of the failure of campaign finance "reform" implies that forcing national Dems to drop a few million in California is barely scratching the surface.

*Second, Republicans may be wary about starting a process of Electoral College reform, given that the current system does advantage them slightly. A genuine movement for reform could lead to pressure for a constitutional amendment, which would diminish this advantage.

*Furthermore, Republicans ideologically are probably closer to a position that values the moderating influence of indirect institutions such as the EC. Democrats tend to affiliate more with the populist democratic government strain of thought, while Republicans tend to affiliate more with the checks and balances/limited republican government strain of thought. This is obviously a broad oversimplified generalization, but I think a compelling case can be made that Republicans are less amenable to the notion of proportional representation in the EC in general, even if it helps them in the short term.

*Fourth, PR in CA (and even possibly FL or IL) opens up the possibility of third party spoiler candidates, which could make a mess of things. Amusing as the spectacle of Nader picking off votes from the left may be for them, the threat of a libertarian or religious conservative candidate picking off votes from the right cannot be dismissed.

*Finally, the Republicans may not want to go down the same road the Democrats did. The Dems have acquired an unsavory reputation for fiddling with election rules to get around not being able to win elections--litigating in Florida in 2000, tossing out election law in New Jersey in 2002, using various tactics to keep previous redistrictings' gerrymanders in place, etc. Republicans may want to continue on the high road for now.

Saturday, June 19, 2004
Pledge Nonreaction Reaction Reaction
Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal carried an editorial (by Samuel Huntington) arguing that "Atheists are outsiders in America." Despite not being an atheist, I disagree.

The logical fallacies start fairly quickly, in the third paragraph.
Unbelievers do not have to recite the pledge, or engage in any religiously tainted practice of which they disapprove. They also, however, do not have the right to impose their atheism on all those Americans whose beliefs now and historically have defined America as a religious nation.
"Imposing" atheism on someone would consist of forcing him to deny belief in God, or some such. Declining to give official government sponsorship to the sentiment that God exists is not the same thing. Further, the notion that one's 'beliefs' alone are sufficient to define America as a 'religious nation' is troubling. The phrase 'religious nation' can mean many different things, ranging from a theocracy to a secular democracy in which a majority of the citizens are religious (if in different traditions). Whose preferred definition of the term should govern? Are those who, like the Latter-day Saints, "do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government," also marginalized? The proper way to determine these sorts of questions is to play by the predetermined rules--in this case, the Constitution. Under the First Amendment, government can neither promote nor discourage either belief or unbelief.

The editorial goes on to make statistical arguments, basically that about 85% of the population consider themselves Christians. Here my LDS-influenced skepticism kicks into overdrive. Whose definition of Christian prevails in these statistical games? Given the vast differences between the denominations, and especially given the vast numbers of people who profess belief but do little to act on it, I don't see the relevance of this argument. Furthermore, this argument has an ugly undertone, perhaps best shown a few paragraphs later when the author refers in passing to an earlier America's rather grudging acceptance of Catholicism. I much prefer a country in which a minority is truly devout but a majority is tolerant of others' faith to a country of devout Protestants determined to make life difficult for those who believe otherwise.

The author also refers to arguments by some of the Founders that religion and morality are necessary to maintain the success of the nation. Using statements like these to defend a particular interpretation of the Constitution is troubling, though, as it allows one to cherry-pick which Founders one wants to quote. It seems wiser to start from any statements that the Founders all agreed on (such as the Constitution). But this argument is irrelevant, anyway. If we take the proposition that morality is essential for the success of democracy, it still tells us nothing about the role of the state in promoting morality. I can just as easily argue that since government-enforced morality is immoral, the churches need to do a better job promoting morality so democracy can succeed.

The rest of the editorial goes on with more arguments from statistics and some nonsensical Supreme Court references (as if we still treat the Court's nineteenth-century opinions in Dred Scott or Reynolds as founts of wisdom). The core of the argument--that the majority of Americans consider themselves Christians--is still irrelevant, though. All Americans live under the Constitution. Its provisions govern.

Friday's WSJ followed up with this editorial (by Daniel Henniger). It too is unimpressive.
The long historical truth is that God, whether He exists or not, is good for summoning national pride, communal bonds and the martial spirit--the qualities most necessary to ensuring the survival of the United States at its current level of pre-eminence.
This argument is horribly offensive, assuming that temporary utility should triumph over truth (rather than the reverse). My sense is that the truly religious should be more offended by this argument than by anything having to do with the SC's Newdow decision.

When in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance schoolchildren stand and say together that their one, indivisible, just and liberty-loving nation exists under God, they are admitting an organizing force in life other than their cute, little selves.
Replacing 'under God' with 'under the Constitution' would give the same result, of course (and have the advantage of being objectively true and Constitutional, besides).

Through the ages this at times has led to quite awful undertakings in the name of national pride, God or religion. But that's not us and likely never will be. The Founders designed our system to prevent factions from abusing state power; it is what they sought to prevent.
This argument is also problematic. American nationalism has actually led to quite a few bad results in the past, and unquestionable abuses of state power. America's strength is her ability to learn from her mistakes as well as her successes, not her ability to whip a blind fervor of religious zeal.

Henniger goes on to argue that "Wholly secularizing America's public life, as the Pledge banners wish, is dangerous." However, he fails to demonstrate this. He argues that patriotism is necessary for national survival, but fails to explain why the only way the state can teach patriotism involves violating the Constitution.

This innocuous little Pledge and its two words, "under God," has become for school children the last link joining national purpose to God--a union that is this country's best, proven hope for ensuring national strength.
Because no religions teach that American might be guided by God? Sheesh, if the religious people don't care enough about the idea to teach it themselves, why does anyone care if the government does?

I'm forced to wonder if the real motives don't have more to do with the children of the irreligious than the religious. Which puts a rather sinister spin on the motives of those who want to use the machinery of government to indoctrinate the others' children with religious views.

Or perhaps that's an overly cynical evaluation. Nevertheless, the Pledge seems to me to have two functions--to give adults an opportunity to browbeat children with patriotic messages, and to give politicians an opportunity to demonstrate how patriotic they are for their constituents. While the second function is largely harmless, in a sad sort of way, the first seems more dangerous, if only because teaching the actual values that America stands for is more important than extracting oaths from those too young to meaningfully keep (or understand) them.

And it's worth noting that the actual semantic content of the Pledge, beyond the loyalty oath aspect, consists of the following ideas:
*The nation is 'indivisible'
*The nation is 'under God'
*The nation has 'liberty and justice for all'

The first idea is leftover from the Reconstruction era (and an ugly reminder of the Pledge's original purpose). The second is unConstitutional. And the third is a nice aspiration, but is close to meaningless without a lot more discussion (rigorously defining the terms, for starters, could cause no end of disagreement). So I suppose I'd just as soon see the nation stop caring about the Pledge entirely.

Thursday, June 17, 2004
Opinionjournal Weighs In On UT-3 Primary
The Wall Street Journal's lead editorial today looks at the Republican party's attitudes toward immigration. Cannon is defended, while the unsavory nature of Throckmorten's backers is not.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004
The Electoral College Meets Direct Democracy (Meets National Partisan Politics)
While this issue's been on my radar for a week or so [sometimes, at least, I get to read interesting things at work], it's starting to appear on others' radars as well, getting mentions on sources as diverse as Kausfiles, RealClearPolitics, and PoliticalWire. So I'll finally get around to posting about it.

Briefly, out-of-state financial backers are trying to put an initiative on the ballot in Colorado to switch the way the state's electoral votes are allocated to proportional representation. Colorado papers provide an article and two editorials (both opposed). Punditry therefore requires that we try to predict what happens next.

In the short term, assuming the backers get enough signatures and survive all legal challenges, the measure will have an effect on the 2004 presidential election (thanks to an ex post facto clause). Colorado is currently considered safe for Bush, who won it by 9 points in 2000. Assuming a similar spread in 2004, under the initiative, Bush would likely get 5 electoral votes to Kerry's 4. If all states voted the same as in 2000, Bush would still win (thanks to population shifts and redistricting), but if battleground states break differently in a close race, interesting things could happen (either NV or WV going Dem would leave a perfect tie in the College with a probable Bush victory in the House, for instance, but AR switching Dem would let Kerry win outright). In any event, such a scenario gives the temporary advantage to the Democrats.

Now one can argue that Colorado's voters, preferring President Bush, might be smart enough to realize that the initiative works against their interests, and vote it down. However, a surprising number of silly initiatives get passed by the voters anyway, and the rhetoric surrounding this issue combined with a slick ad campaign just might convince the voters that unilaterally disarming in the Electoral College games might be worth it. But that slick ad campaign has to come from somewhere, and unless I miss my guess, Democratic leaders might be a tad reluctant to start pouring in the cash.

The first (and obvious) reason for this is California. If this passes in Colorado (and especially if Bush loses the election because it passes in Colorado), it can certainly pass in California, and there will likely be no shortage of Republican money to assure that it's on the ballot with overwhelming "yes" campaign funds well in time for 2008 (it's already too late for 2004). Republicans' loss of 4 of Colorado's electoral votes would hit hard in a close election, but Democrats' lose of something on the order of 25 electoral votes in California would leave them in far worse shape.

But let's assume that Democratic leaders can't kill the CO campaign, and the situation escalates. Once California goes, the next logical move would be for the Democrats to put the issue on the ballot in all the other Red states with the initiative. Following which the Republicans could try the same in Blue states (we'll assume for the sake of argument that by this time state leaders won't be able to kill the issue even in states strongly dominated by one party). And if we assume that the battleground initiative states get caught up in this as well, when the dust settles (possibly by the 2012 election), we could have proportional division of electoral college votes in 24 states. Who benefits?

Running some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, the Republicans seem to come out way ahead. Assuming that all initiative states vote the same percentages as they did for Bush and Gore in 2000, and following strict rounding, we get an approximation of how many electoral votes each party could expect under the new system. We whimsically assume that Maine and Nebraska, despite following the congressional district plan already, switch to straight proportional division, but we ignore DC (though it has the initiative) both because Gore won overwhelmingly enough to get all 3 votes even under PR, and because we're too lazy to consider how easy it would be for Congress to override any such initiative. The numbers are as follows:

11 non-initiative states are reliably Republican [TX (34), KS (6), LA (9), IN (11), KY (8), VA (13), TN (11), NC (15), SC (8), AL (9), GA (15)] for a total of 139 electoral votes.

9 non-initiative states/districts are reliably Democratic [HI (4), NY (31), VT (3), MD (10), DE (3), NJ (15), DC (3), RI (4), CT (7)] for a total of 80 electoral votes.

7 non-initiative states are battleground states [NM (5), IA (7), MN (10), WI (10), WV (5), PA (21), NH (4)] for a total of 62 electoral votes.

11 initiative states are reliably Republican [AK (3), ID (4), UT (5), MT (3), WY (3), CO (9), ND (3), SD (3), NE (5), OK (7), MS (6)] with a total of 51 electoral votes. Under PR, these would split 33 Republican and 18 Democratic (with MS and UT rounding just barely breaking for Republicans).

3 initiative states are reliably Democratic [CA (55), IL (21), MA (12)] with a total of 88 electoral votes. Under PR, these would split 37 Republican and 51 Democratic under a simplified scenario. Nader actually would have gotten two of CA's votes in 2000 (one from each party), and CA would probably be much more in play than most smaller states, so these numbers could probably swing more than the others. But we're working back-of-the-envelope.

10 initiative states are battleground states [WA (11), OR (7), NV (5), AZ (10), AK (6), MO (11), OH (20), MI (17), ME (4), FL (27)] with a total of 118 electoral votes. Under PR, these would split 59 Republican and 59 Democratic (with close rounding breaking Blue in OR and Red in FL (barely)).

Now follow the bouncing ball. Under the current setup, Republican safe states include 139 + 51 = 190 electoral votes, and Democratic safe states include 80 + 88 = 168 electoral votes. This leaves battleground states with 62 + 118 = 180 electoral votes (which gives 190 + 168 + 180 = 538 electoral votes, of which 270 are needed to win, and so our math checks). Thus, under the current setup, Republicans start with a base of 190 and need to win 80/180 (44%) of the battleground votes to win. Democrats start with a base of 168 and need to win 102/180 (57%) of the battleground votes to win.

Under a PR setup in the initiative states, following our back-of-the-envelope calculations above, Republicans would get 139 + 33 + 37 + 59 = 268 electoral votes! Democrats would get 80 + 18 + 51 + 59 = 208 electoral votes. 62 electoral votes would be left over in our 7 non-initiative battleground states (and television stations in those states would make a bundle every four years). Republicans would have to win just one of those seven states to win the election outright, while Democrats would have to hold all seven to win (of the seven, Bush carried WV and NH in 2000, but the other 5 went for Gore, so it's not totally hopeless, just quite hard). And don't forget the 2 CA votes Nader might have gotten. If he did, then our hapless Democratic candidate can only get 207 + 62 = 269 electoral votes (assuming all our other close calls broke the same way), and the election goes to the House unless he can cut a fast deal with Nader (the details of which he almost certainly won't like).

Now the fact is that some of those close calls might break the other way (with sufficient campaigning). And of course, population shifts and ideological trends will render this analysis obsolete all too soon (the post-2010 redistricting will certainly make a muddle of it). But my impression is that going down this road strongly disadvantages the Dems. In the current system, as they slug it out over a dozen and a half or so battleground states, they can afford to lose a few battles and still win the war. Under PR in initiative states, they could afford to lose far fewer battles. Given that a Republican retaliation is all but certain in CA at least, Dems would probably be wise to nip this one in the bud (and don't forget that once CA is in play, minor parties can make a credible grab for one or two electoral votes, which in an election as close as 2000 was could let them play spoiler).

Opinionjournal's Electoral College calculator and this page of 2000 election results were useful for performing above calculations. See initiative states here.

Newsnet Celebrates Flag Burning!!!
And here I thought I was taking a shockingly controversial position by simply being against an anti-flag-burning Constitutional amendment, while personally disapproving of the practice of burning flags. The Daily Universe goes one farther, and runs an apparently approving article about certain interest groups burning "hundreds" of American flags. And involving children in their foul revels as well! There's also currently a picture showing from the Newsnet front page.

Saturday, June 12, 2004
Anxiously Engaged?
So is the viewpoint expressed in this editorial profoundly moral or profoundly immoral?

Thursday, June 10, 2004
The Drought Explained
This article clears up how we can still be in a drought despite having the wettest winter I've ever seen. It's quite simple--the water conservation people can't do math!

""On average, Utahns over-water their lawn [sic] by 50 percent," Julander said. "Cut the water in half and your lawn will get exactly what it needs, and we'll save a whole bunch of water. Your lawn won't know the difference.""

Of course, if what Julander says is true, his advice would lead to watering one's lawn at 75% of what it needs. Perhaps the rest of the drought math is similarly fuzzy.

In any event, I've found it hard to take the drought warnings too seriously when I've seen the city of Provo, the BYU, and average Utah residents all egregiously waste water (watering sidewalks, watering during daylight, etc).

But one thing I've wondered about U.S. water policy generally is why the incentives are so out of whack--consumers, if billed by the amount they use, generally still don't pay prices that reflect the actual cost of the water they use. If water is really a scarce resource, simply charging market prices would do much to allocating it efficiently. At the moment, none of my utility bills reflect how much water I use--and so, while I don't go out of my way to waste water, I don't try particularly hard to conserve it either, compared to, say, electricity (which I am billed for). [One could argue that I'm a selfish jerk who should be more considerate even if he likely won't be around in ten years or whenever when the reservoirs finally do run dry, except that A) permanent residents don't care either (see above), B) the conservation people have cried wolf enough times that I'm disinclined to belief them without seeing an actual disaster, and C) if faith really does have that much of an effect on rainfall (as the periodic fasting-for-rain letters from SLC would indicate), my moving from the state may be an enormous contribution to the water situation, as it will allow the remaining Saints to pray for rain unfettered by my unrighteousness in their midst diluting their petitions. Oh, and D) it's probably their own fault for praying for 'moisture' instead of 'rain.']

In any event, that wasn't quite where I was going with this, which was to anticipate the standard critique of such heartlessly economic ideas, which is that poor people have it hard enough without charging them more for water. But a simple way around that is to simply have your Central Economic Planning Board (or reasonable equivalent in our socially liberal model) figure out the minimum allotment of potable water that it is each individual's divine birthright to receive, and start charging once one hits that mark. Which should satisfy everyone, as the Deserving Poor suddenly join the ranks of us Heartless Jerks once they start wasting water, and are thus no longer deserving of quite so much sympathy.

I'll close by noting that one of my professors was quite amused to note that the local water conservation people have their local office (up on University Parkway near UVSC) surrounded by acres of lush green lawn.

Campaign Finance, Bad Reporting
This article last Friday is particularly egregious, and therefore in line for savage refutation:

"The most coveted political seat in the state is being sold to the highest paying candidate, as the Republican gubernatorial primary race continues."

A) It's quite possible to argue that several other political seats (U.S. Senate, for instance) are coveted at least as much.
B) No it isn't. The gubernatorial seat in question will be determined by election. Saying otherwise is stupid. If this were an editorial, being stupid might be justified. However, since it's supposed to be news, it's just tacky.

"Quin Monson, assistant director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, said it is clear higher campaign spending will give the candidate the advantage of more votes.

"Every additional dollar a candidate spends will simply provide him with more visibility," Monson said. "Definitely, more money will translate into more visibility and more votes.""

Note that the reporter does not seem to understand Dr. Monson's point, which is that spending additional money increases a candidate's performance over what he would have gotten had he not spent the additional money. It does not, as the reporter tries to twist it, mean that spending more money than his opponent gives a candidate more votes than his opponent.

""We can never outspend the Huntsman family or Jon Jr.," Starks told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We don't believe the person who spends the most money is always the best candidate or always the winner."

However, history tells the story about the candidate with the deepest pockets. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, President George W. Bush raised more than $193 million while his Democratic opponent Al Gore raised only $132 million.

Closer to home, in the 2002 Second Congressional District race, Democrat Jim Matheson won raising $400,000 more than his opponent Republican John Swallow raised."

The reporter's thesis is undermined rather badly by these examples, properly considered. Gore won more popular votes than Bush, and just barely lost the election. The 2nd District race was also quite close. Dozens of other factors could have swung either race, regardless of money spent. Further undermining this approach, plenty of other examples exist in which the higher funded candidate lost.

Ultimately, money leads to visibility, which is essential to win elections. Spending more money than one otherwise would have spent thus gives one more visibility than one otherwise would have gotten, up to a point. Eventually, diminishing returns set in, and each additional dollar spent returns less added value. Furthermore, many other variables affect a candidate's standing--preexisting impressions, news coverage, etc.

Then there's the problem of sorting out correlation and causation. Looking at any broad campaign finance trend to prove the effects of money on elections is difficult, because it's easy to hypothesize that candidates who are more popular tend to have an easier time raising money.

Finally, using the gubernatorial race to try to prove that money is everything is particularly silly given that Lampropolous didn't even make it out of convention.

Friday, June 04, 2004
Election Polls
It seems worth noting what most of the media seems determined to ignore: most of the election polling going on right now is close to meaningless, at least insofar as pundits are trying to use the data. What the polls seem to show is that the electorate is fairly evenly divided. What pundits try to show (depending who you read) is that Bush/Kerry is doing better/worse in a significant way. Most of this is bogus, either because the difference is within the poll's margin of error or due to the simple fact that the election is five months off, and plenty can happen to change voters' perceptions between now and then (including but not limited to greater voter exposure to the Boston Fog Machine, developments in Iraq, other developments in international affairs, increased awareness of the strength of the economic recovery, developments in domestic politics, etc, etc).

But even putting aside those factors, we still should take polls with a grain of salt. In recent elections, polls have had limited use in predicting the outcomes. The SD special election a few days ago ended up a lot closer than most polls were showing in the preceding days, and LA governor's race faced similar problems last year. In 2002, almost every polling organization missed the Republican surge that led to Republicans retaking the Senate after winning several close races. And, perhaps most famously, the major media organizations completely blew it in trying to call the 2000 election (oscillating from "Gore won Florida" to "too close to call" to "Bush won Florida" to "too close to call" in the space of a few hours).

One of the major problems is figuring out who's going to vote in the first place. In an election that isn't terribly close, rough estimates (involving asking pollees if they voted in the last election and the like) can work to estimate likely voters. In a close election, though, this may break down. Both parties are running ever-more-sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations, and voter registration drives are a staple of election years. In years in which divisive and/or explosive factors are in play (Iraq, culture wars of various sorts, fever-swamps Bush-hatred), predicting turnout is probably much harder than in more 'normal' years.

Another problem is reaching people in the first place. Telephone surveys rely on people being A) home, and B) willing to talk to the pollster. In addition, increasing numbers of people are abandoning land lines in favor of mobile phones, while pollsters don't call, which could impact poll results in a statistically significant way.

Finally, it's worth noting that since the Electoral College vote is the one that counts, national polls between Bush/Kerry are rather useless. Polls of swing states matter more.

So the upshot of all of this is that, in my impression, any poll before the election that shows less than a 10-point gap between candidates is probably almost useless for purposes of prognostication. (And at that, some polls that purport to show huge differences may still be unreliable).

[Further note: I'm too lazy to provide links to most of this stuff, though perhaps if someone begged nicely in the comments I could be persuaded to change my mind].

Flag Burning & Politics
Today's SLTrib has an article claiming that Senator Hatch is planning on pushing a flag burning amendment again this year. I personally am against this amendment, as I think that Justice Scalia got it right in Texas v. Johnson [and the weakness of the dissents is even more striking]. However, as my personal distaste for the notion that doing anything other than ignoring flag-burners is an appropriate use of the monopoly of force is evidently not shared by a significant portion of the American electorate, reviving the issue in an election year may be effective politics. Anti-amenders are probably not going to be as numerous in basing their vote choice on this issue as pro-amenders, and few Congressmen relish the thought of running for reelection while being targeted by "Senator Smith supports flag-burning" commercials. The measure has evidently passed the House before and could probably easily do so again (290/435 votes required). The Senate (67/100 votes required, 63 ayes in 2000) is another matter, as Senators face reelection less frequently and enjoy larger electorates, in which a few issue voters make less of a difference.

The principal advantage Republicans gain from pushing the measure again this year is that Senator Kerry voted against the amendment last time the Senate voted on it. This evidently didn't hurt him in blue Massachusetts, but could potentially alienate swing voters who will decide the fate of his presidential ambitions in November.

On the other hand, a few Senators may be impacted by the vote this year as well. Incumbent Senators who go before the voters this year who voted "Nay" on the amendment in 2000 include Sens. Boxer (D-CA), Dodd (D-CT), Inouye (D-HI), Mikulski (D-MD), Dorgan (D-ND), Schumer (D-NY), Wyden (D-OR), Daschle (D-SD), Bennett (R-UT), Leahy (D-VT), Murray (D-WA), and Feingold (D-WI). Admittedly, most of these Senators are favored for easy reelection. Daschle is probably in closest fight right now, while Murray and Feingold could conceivably lose if Bush wins with strong coattails. It will be interesting to see if they change their positions if this comes up for vote this year. Note also that some who were facing reelection in 2000 who voted for the amendment may conveniently change their minds this year.

Violence II--Brightline Rules
The comments on my first post on violence have got me thinking further about brightline rules. The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet [**SPOILERS**] mentions four entertainment no-nos: "entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way." Kevin and DP both argue that drawing an objective bright line may be impossible, which seems to make the application of 'in any way' to all four equally problematic.

Vulgar: difficult to quantify, in part because definitions [via] vary from "crudely indecent" to "lacking cultivation or refinement" to "of or associated with the great masses of people." Even if we take the indecency approach, opinions and practices will vary. For instance, even in the hot-button LDS issue of profanity, different people use different standards. Levels of tolerance vary up the scale from f*tch to cr*p to d*mn to b*st*rd to even worse words. [Personally, while occasional bouts of temper may provoke me to the next level higher, I take solace in the fact that damn and hell were over-the-pulpit words in the country of my mission]. In any event, quantifying vulgarity seems quite tricky, and the stricter the definition, the greater the likelihood of excluding the vast majority of today's entertainment [opinions may vary as to the desirability of that, of course].

Immoral: complicated by the distinctions between depicting immorality and advocating immorality [if you haven't yet, immediately go read OSC's A Mormon Writer Looks at the Problem of Evil in Fiction]. Further complicated by the difficulty of deciding what advocates morality. For instance, do Robin Hobb's [**Spoilers**] Farseer books advocate fornication, because the FitzChivalry is unapologetic in it, or do they condemn it, because the harsh consequences that follow and warp the rest of his life? I don't know that anyone, even the author, can authoritatively say exactly what moral position a particular story advocates in all cases. Finally, in the case of more complex works, it's hard to tell which side of the line it will fall on before reading/watching. Perhaps in this case, the FSY standard can only help on the reread list.

Violent: the more I think about it, the worse trying to craft a brightline rule gets. Martial arts sparring, while it can be physically painful, is far less disturbing than heated words spoken in anger, which may not be strictly violent, but seem to be troubling in the same sort of way as many forms of violence. Even if the "in any way" clause doesn't apply to violence, though, it's still hard to know what 'too much' violence would be, other than by personal taste. The worry, though, is that if violence is desensitizing, one's personal taste is probably unreliable. I can remember a time in distant childhood when even the thought of one fictional character killing another was troubling. Now a death scene has to be particularly poignant to even get my attention. On the other hand, the first time I saw someone, while playing a first person shooter, shoot someone in the head at point-blank range sending a spurt of blood into the air, I was horrified enough to decide to never play FPSs myself, regardless of what others chose, due to D&C 59:6. I can easily imagine that if I'd chosen differently, my memory of first watching a FPS would have faded to the emotional distance of my childhood memory.

Pornographic: this may be the easiest brightline rule in one sense: anything which is sexually stimulating ought not be sought out. On the other hand, since what an individual finds to be sexually stimulating can vary tremendously, any hope of crafting an objective rule breaks down quickly. The 'in any way' clause appears to fit here best, though, subjective though it may be.

Objective standards, or objective bright-line rules, thus seem to be difficult to come by. While this is a good excuse to not judge the choices of others, it does not seem to be a good excuse to ignore the issue for ourselves. However, I sense a tension between the necessity of personal discretion in setting these standards and the argued desensitizing effects that wrong choices have. Is there any way around this dilemma? Part of my trouble stems from my personal impression that the members I've known who are most fastidious in their entertainment choices also seem to be the ones who are most troubled when they encounter something outside their comfort zone. Thus, I think a healthy level of desensitization might be good, given that we're going to have to interact with a fallen world at least enough to try to convert it. Perhaps I'm mistaken in this, though.

Ironically enough, while getting the link to the D&C reference above, I noticed a new section on Wise Media Use, a section with links to a variety of articles/talks/etc.

Thursday, June 03, 2004
World's Biggest Problems?
Via Instapundit, here's a link to the Copenhagen Consensus website and PDF report, which summarizes the work of a panel of economists using cost-benefit analysis to try to figure out which of the world's problems most deserve our attention and resources. Read the whole report to get a feel for the methodology (some projects couldn't be ranked, etc).

Tuesday, June 01, 2004
In Defense of "Polarization"
It seems I've been hearing/reading a lot of complaints lately about how the '50-50' division in the electorate is causing all sorts of bad things, from spam to global warming. The theory seems to be that if half the country is Republican and half Democrat, then the two halves will somehow have nothing in common and a second Civil War (or similarly catastrophic) will result if something isn't done (and the suggestions about what should be done usually seem to be comically self-interested).

Now perhaps if half the country really does have nothing in common with the other half, disaster may be brewing. However, it's quite a logical leap to go from 'electoral results are coming in close to 50-50 D/R' to 'half of the people in the country have nothing in common with the other half.' For starters, plenty of people don't bother voting in the first place, and thus can be presumed to be satisfied with either party. Next, many people vote more based on the issues of the moment (economy, Iraq, etc), regardless of long term ideological outlook (or long term rationality). Then there's the fact that American parties tend to be quite moderate compared to other countries (in part as a result of our electoral system, which rewards broad coalitions). Finally, partisan identification can be quite variable--many (the majority, probably) will never switch, but some do as circumstances change (and circumstances are always changing--the defining issues of the moment are different than those of 20, 40, or 60 years ago, and will be different still in 20 years).

So 50-50 election returns aren't by definition indication of divisive polarization. On the contrary, they may be quite good. After all, our system (in theory) is supposed to enact the will of the majority. In addition, we tend to like moderate results over extreme ones. Hence, a 50-50 split might be evidence that the system is working quite well--both parties are putting forth positions that are so competitive that swing voters are being listened to more than ever. If one party drifts away from the median voter, the other party should be able to, with minor corrections at most, amass a majority and win the next election. 50-50 elections mean that both parties are competitive enough that majority will matters--60-40 elections would mean that a good chunk of the moderate swing voters could be safely ignored, and policies that are more ideologically extreme would be enacted.

Of course, the situation may be slightly more complex than that (particularly given that median voter theory works best on single-dimension policies, while governance is depressingly multidimensional). And one may have strong objections to the resulting policy that is enacted--but that simply indicates that that person strongly disagrees with the American median voter. And the solution to that is either to mobilize like-minded nonvoters or to change the minds of a significant number of other voters (or, perhaps, to abandon the notion of majority rule in the American polity).

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