Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Medical Emergencies Change Lives

A couple of weeks ago my father suffered a stroke. Fortunately it was a relatively small stroke caused by a small blood clot temporarily lodging in a portion of the brain. My dad has recovered from most of the symptoms we first noticed, thanks in part to the fact that my mother and my wife insisted that my dad get immediate treatment.

However, during my dad’s treatment it was discovered that he has had at least one heart attack during the past five years. We believe that he has had three or four during the past five or six months. Each time dad has complained of symptoms that my mom thought could indicate a heart attack (see Heart Attack Warning Signs), my dad has adamantly refused to get it checked out, which is common. In hindsight, mom should have simply called 9-1-1 and forced dad to have it checked out the first time she noticed a symptom.

When a heart attack occurs, quick action is imperative to preventing unnecessary damage to the heart muscle. Even five minutes can make a difference in longevity and future quality of life. Nowadays, they can bust up clots and open up arteries to improve blood supply to the heart. Since my dad did not get timely treatment for his heart attacks, blood supply was stopped or reduced to some portions of his heart, causing some of the heart tissue to essentially die.

Thankfully, dad’s surviving heart tissue is functioning reasonably well. However, the impaired heart has been pumping out an insufficient amount of blood with each beat; a condition known as Congestive Heart Failure. A normal heart ejects at least 55% of the blood from the chamber with each beat. If the ejection fraction falls to 35% or less, it is considered Congestive Heart Failure because essential organs cannot get enough blood to thrive.

When this happens, excess fluid backs up waiting to be pumped through the heart. Since the heart cannot handle the fluid backlog, the body disperses the fluid according to gravity. If you are upright, the fluid pools in your legs and feet, causing swelling. If you are reclining, the fluid pools in your lower back and around your lungs, causing shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. Secondary lung problems (bronchitis, pneumonia) can result.

Also, when the ejection fraction is low, blood remains in the heart longer than it should. In my dad’s case, this allowed a blood clot to form inside of his heart, which is a very dangerous condition. The clot could easily travel to the brain and cause a major stroke or death. They treat these things with clot busters and blood thinners. Eventually the clot should either dissolve or adhere to the heart wall.

It is a good idea to be well versed on stroke symptoms. It is important to get treatment within three hours of the first appearance of the symptoms, because within that window they have the option of using drugs that can attack the clot causing the stroke. After that window expires, they won’t treat with these drugs due to decreased effectiveness and increased risk of problematic side effects. As with heart attack symptoms, if stroke symptoms appear, call 9-1-1 immediately. Don’t wait. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t think it’s a waste of time.

With heart problems, the earlier treatment is sought, the better the available options are, and the better the prognosis will be. However, even if treatment has not been sought in a timely manner, it is important to get treatment as soon as possible. Within my lifetime, heart problems have gone from being an almost immediate death sentence to being highly treatable.

While my dad is doing very well, his current condition means that family members will have to pick up a lot of slack and deal with things that dad has been used to handling. That means that family members will have less time for other things (i.e. blogging). But that’s the way life goes.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Are Third Parties Useless or Even Harmful?

Phoenix Roberts, editor of the Utah Ledger (a self-proclaimed conservative publication) posts a somewhat spirited debate between himself and someone named Bud about the wisdom of supporting third parties here. Bud chides the Ledger for supporting Senator Orrin Hatch over Constitution Party candidate Scott Bradley, whom Bud believes is a true conservative.

Before going any further, let me provide a little history. The Constitution Party was founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party. Scott Bradley is the Director of Telecommunications at Utah State University. He was a member of the Utah Republican State Central Committee for five years before joining the CP and running for the US Senate.

Roberts’ main contention is that voting for a third party is fruitless and is, therefore, a worthless pursuit. He asserts that the two-party system in the US is a permanent fixture, and he implies that if you want to get anything done politically you must support candidates only from the two main parties.

Roberts is particularly unhappy with the CP, as he contends that on three close 2004 races, votes for the CP effectively became “the equivalent of 2 votes for a Democrat.” Roberts is so upset about this that he resorts to name calling. “You boneheads do more harm than good. You remind me of Merrill Cook.” Ouch.

On his side, Bud repeats the CP mantra (I have heard it enough to wonder if it’s a religious chant), “Abraham Lincoln was elected President on a third party ticket called the Republican Party.” Bud is technically, but not substantively correct. Yes, the Republican Party was a third party, but it was nothing like the CP.

Prior to the founding of the GOP the two main parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. The Democrats trace their roots to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but so do the Republicans. Following the dwindling of the Federalists (which more closely followed the precepts of Alexander Hamilton) to almost nothing, the Jeffersonians (Democratic-Republicans) were the only real party. This large party eventually developed two factions: those with a somewhat more populist bent, called Jeffersonian Democrats, and those that believed more in the strength of the republic, called Jeffersonian Republicans. By and by they became two parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans. The latter soon became the Whig Party.

Lincoln served one term as a Democrat Representative from Illinois in the US House. But as the issue of slavery began dividing the nation, it also began dividing political parties. In the early 1850s the Whig Party fractured “along pro- and anti-slavery lines.” There was less fracture in the Democratic Party, which held onto its power base among pro-slavery constituents, although, a number of Northern Democrats left the party. With the Whigs falling apart and the Democrats taking a clear pro-slavery stance, Lincoln, like many others, found himself with no party to which he felt he could belong.

In 1854, a coalition of anti-slavery advocates (including Whigs and Northern Democrats) formed the Republican Party. The party was tenuous at first, but it recruited famous explorer John C. Fremont to run as its presidential nominee in 1856. The party gained a great deal of popularity in the North. It is imperative to note that a number of then current office holders switched parties to join the new Republican Party. Also, a number of influential people, including those that could help fund the party, switched ranks. This new party lined up major supporters very quickly and won the presidency with Lincoln just six years after its birth.

The reason I disparage Bud’s comparison of the CP to the GOP is that the founding and running of the CP bears no resemblance to the founding and running of the GOP. The US has had smaller parties ever since the beginning of the party system. Some of these smaller parties have occasionally had flare-ups of popularity, and some have even been able to get candidates elected to certain posts. But these parties either remain too small to carry any political clout or their heydays are short lived and they quickly flare out, like Ross Perot’s Reform Party.

While the GOP was tenuous in its first few years, it was a major political force almost immediately. Whigs leaving their floundering party and anti-slavery Democrats needed somewhere to go, and the GOP was it. There were other third parties around at the time, but few of those leaving the Democrats and Whigs went to those parties. Why is that? Those other parties simply had limited appeal and/or didn’t get (or were incapable of getting) their message out.

Current third parties can flatter themselves into thinking that they are going to be the next big thing; that they’re just waiting in the wings for one of the two major parties to take a dive and then the world will beat a path to their door. But this is extremely unlikely. If they are attracting a small percentage of voters now, they will likely continue to do so unless they go the other way and disappear altogether.

Having said that, I disagree with Roberts on the usefulness of third parties. I believe that third parties have a valid role to play in American politics. They provide a haven for opinions that are poorly represented in the major parties. Roberts may think that his statistics show that CP members caused three GOP losses in ’04, but who is to say these people would have voted at all had the CP option not been available? Those that feel disenfranchised often express their vote by not voting. Third parties give them a valid way to vote their consciences.

Roberts says that “the first principal of political power is "You have none if you don't win elections."” Well, third parties rarely have a place at the table with the big boys, but that does not mean that they have no political power. Roberts himself asserts that they can help swing election results. Making their voice heard can help influence public policy, even if they’re not the ones doing the policy making.

I would not discourage anyone from voting for, starting, or joining a third party. I would simply encourage them to understand the realities of doing so. They should go into it with their eyes open rather than believing fables about the popularity and clout of the movement.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

National Security Attention Deficit Disorder

An AP-Ipsos poll done late last week shows that most Americans think the Democrats lack a decent strategy for dealing with Iraq (see here). Yet just a few days earlier, Americans voted mostly Democratic to give that party its largest win in three decades. What can be made of this?

Well, for one thing, it is clear that the GOP’s guaranteed security vote has evaporated. The poll seems to indicate that over half of the respondents place Iraq or terrorism as the #1 issue. While this is a far cry from the 90+% that placed national security issues as #1 in the aftermath of 9/11, it shows that there is still a strong national security vote. GOP wonks were freaked out by October polls that showed the GOP running 5% behind the Democrats on national security trustworthiness.

In the intense days immediately following 9/11, the GOP could rely on the solid security vote. A lot of people saw this as the #1 issue, and most of them trusted the GOP to take care of it. The GOP relied heavily on that sentiment in subsequent years. However, as 9/11 has faded further into history and our war in the Middle East has dragged on, the security vote has slowly dropped off.

What’s more is that a significant number of Americans started thinking the GOP wasn’t doing such a great job on security. Although they didn’t think the Democrats had a plan, they started thinking the Dems couldn’t be much worse on security than the GOP and perhaps might be better. GOP wonks still can’t fathom this sentiment.

During the heady days of being entrusted with the nation’s security, the GOP moved into the power corruption mode. They expanded government (size and power), domestic spending, and pocket lining at a rate that hadn’t been seen since LBJ’s days. As the GOP elephant grew larger and its security camouflage shrunk, its excesses and violations of its own principles became stunningly clear. As GOPers in Congress asked, “Do I look fat in this NCLB bill, Medicare expansion bill, or earmark?” voting Americans became disgusted.

But why did the GOP’s security camouflage shrink? Why has the public trust in the GOP to manage national security slipped? Mark Steyn in this article claims that the jihadist strategy of wearing down Americans with “a couple of deaths here, a market bombing there, cars burning, smoke over the city on the evening news, day after day after day, and ratcheted up a notch or two for the weeks before the election” has worked.

Steyn laments that while GOP strategists explain the election loss as historically normal for a president’s sixth year, “that's not how it was seen around the world, either in the chancelleries of Europe, where they're dancing conga lines, or in the caves of the Hindu Kush, where they would also be dancing conga lines if Mullah Omar hadn't made it a beheading offense.”

In other words, Steyn is asserting that the world’s bad guys are interpreting the election results as a win for them. He feels that everyone throughout the world pretty much sees the Democrats as soft on terror. And there are certainly some elements of the party to live up to that assertion. To bolster that perception, Democrat author Orson Scott Card pleads with Americans in this pre-election article to vote Republican for the sake of the nation’s security.

Card’s article is long and includes partisan attacks, but he also does a good job of laying out the bigger picture strategy of what we need to achieve in the Middle East and why we must not fail in Iraq. Unfortunately, most Americans have little clue about this strategy, because the administration has done a very poor job of clearly articulating it, talking down to Americans rather than talking to them like adults.

But the GOP’s fall from its security perch goes deeper than that. Steyn thinks that Americans have simply gotten bored of the war. They want to pick up the remote and change the channel from what they see as a reality show gone bad. He says that this merely confirms what the bad guys already think about us: that we don’t have the ability to stick with a conflict in the long term.

Steyn writes, “We think we can just call off the game early, and go back home and watch TV. It doesn't work like that. Whatever it started out as, Iraq is a test of American seriousness…. "These Colors Don't Run" is a fine T-shirt slogan, but in reality these colors have spent 40 years running from the jungles of Southeast Asia, the helicopters in the Persian desert, the streets of Mogadishu. ... To add the sands of Mesopotamia to the list will be an act of weakness from which America will never recover.”

I believe the problem lies in fickleness. Americans want a winning strategy. They want to decisively win the war in the Middle East. But Americans are also completely unwilling to accept the incredibly harsh realities of such a war. We would have to kick butt big time, lock down Iraq tighter than a drum, suppress and tightly regulate almost every aspect of life throughout the country, and accept horrendous levels of collateral injuries, damage, and deaths. We’re not willing to do that. So the officials in charge, attempting to implement the will of the American public, try to walk this wobbly line between trying to fight and trying to make nice, doing poorly at both.

In the US, we the people, are the government. Our government officials represent the ambiguous wills of a broad and varied public. Sometimes this can be like Aesop’s fable about the man, the boy, and the donkey; it comes off looking incompetent. We seem incapable of handling a regional conflict with a bunch of punks in a 35-mile radius around Baghdad, let alone manage two major theater wars like we did in WWII. Since the GOP has presided over the current security strategy, they’re the ones that are on the chopping block.

Late in life, Nixon surmised that the president of a free republic could only sustain a foreign war for a relatively short period of time before public sentiment turned against it. Americans want to get on with life. That even happened domestically after the Civil War when Americans wanting to get on with life grew tired of Union troops occupying the South, resulting in the drastic failure of Reconstruction and a century of Jim Crow.

So, in a way I agree with Steyn and Nixon (and even the terrorists) that the American public is willing to handle war and its effects only in the short term unless the enemy is very clearly defined, is containable, and is obviously of immediate danger to us. But we’re also very compassionate. That’s why, after WWII we willingly helped our former enemies for many years.

I suppose the lesson is that if you’re going to war, you’d better hit them fast, completely decimate their ability to fight against you regardless of how inhumane it might seem, and then lock down the situation. Americans will then respond by willingly helping with recovery efforts. What Americans won’t do is put up with seemingly endless and seemingly pointless fighting, or reconstruction efforts that lack good progress.

None of this bodes well for a long-term strategy in the Middle East that will ensure national security. Just keeping on doing what we’re doing might turn out OK in the long run (say 20 years), but it’s no quick fix. And although General Abizaid testified differently before the Senate yesterday (see here), it’s debatable about whether it will even work out in the long run. Turning tail and running away is more insane than staying and continuing our current strategy. Americans want to win, but we lack the will to do what it takes to win.

Most people chuck the whole blame on the shoulders of the politicians, but the politicians are simply trying to carry out the messages the public sends them, so I put the problem back on the shoulders of us, the American people. I have no clue where the next two years will take us. I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but we largely deserve the government we get.

Friday, November 10, 2006

National Academic League

This is the third year that I have a child participating in National Academic League competitions. I had never heard of NAL until my oldest son came home from junior high one day a couple of years ago and announced that he had tried out for the school’s NAL team. “What’s NAL?” I asked.

When I was a kid, they used to show academic competitions between colleges on Saturday mornings after all of the cartoons were done. They called them college bowl games. The games featured teams of brainy kids that answered brainy questions. NAL competitions are very much like those college bowl games.

The NAL website says that grades 5-12 can participate. The organization was founded by Drs. Terrel H. Bell and Donna L. Elmquist in 1992. Dr. Bell spent most of his professional career in Utah and served as Education Secretary under three US presidents.

NAL games are like team Jeopardy on steroids. While there is plenty of trivia, there are also problem solving and correlation exercises involved. Topics center on math, science, history, geography, English grammar, civics, literature, etc. Questions are specifically structured to correlate with national standardized test criteria.

Games are divided into four quarters, three of which last 12 minutes. Each quarter has its own format. In the first quarter teams face off with five players at each team’s table and five players on each team’s bench. Questions are delivered by series of three to each team in turn. On each team, the play rotates through the players in order. A 30-second shot clock runs for each question.

A correct answer earns two points. While no points are subtracted for an incorrect answer, the other team gets a chance to steal the series and earn one point by answering the missed question. At the end of the series of three questions, the opposing team begins a series of three questions. Once a player gets two questions wrong, that player rotates to the bench and is replaced by a player from the bench.

Answers must be precise. For example, at yesterday’s meet, players were asked to give the chemical symbol for table salt. When a player blurted out “nacl,” his team cheered. The correct answer, however, was “NaCl.” The opposing player that got the point had to say, “Capital n a, capital c l.”

The second quarter is played as a team. Each team has five members that cluster and conference. The questions are more complex, and are delivered to the team on cards. The moment the card is delivered, a 60-second clock begins running. Correct answers garner three points, with no points subtracted for incorrect answers. One question yesterday featured names of five living things. Teams had to correctly state what category each thing fit in. My son was particularly proud of knowing that perch was a fish, rather than a bird, as was assumed by others on his team. Of course, the first team to buzz in gets to answer first. The other team only gets a turn if the first team’s answer is incorrect. So it’s a matter of teamwork, knowledge, and speed.

A typical question during this round might include five or six math problems (some of them rather complex), matching five or six explorers with what they are noted for having discovered, answering which sections of the Constitution concern themselves with five or six issues, accurately describing the water cycle using the proper scientific terms, etc.

The third quarter actually begins at the start of the game. Each school’s third quarter team is given a question. They are then ushered into rooms that have a variety of resources. During the first two quarters, the teams prepare to present background information, pros and cons of the issue, and recommendations along with backup for those recommendations. It’s kind of a passive debate. Presentations must last at least three minutes, but must not exceed five. 30 points are possible for each team. Each team is judged independently against the stated criteria, which includes quality of research, logic flow, presentation skill, grammar, thoroughness, and persuasiveness.

Some of the questions are not bad. One recent debate concerned daylight saving time. Another discussed compulsory voting. But some questions are lame. I remember one from last year that concerned a proposal to go to twelve 30-day months each year, with three 10-day weeks each month. It was a stupid, totally unrealistic issue, and the teams handled it stupidly. Still, these kids have to work as a team to quickly do research, make a decision, develop a plan, create props, and create a cohesive presentation. They then must stand up in front of a roomful of people and calmly present.

The fourth quarter is my favorite. They are back to having teams face off at the tables, but this time each player faces off with the player directly across from them. Play repeatedly circulates through players one through five. There is a 30-second shot clock. Two points are awarded for a correct answer, but one point is subtracted for a wrong answer, so you only answer if you are quite certain. If neither player answers correctly (or in time), it becomes a free-for-all where the first one to buzz in gets a chance to answer. This quarter moves fast and the scoreboard changes fast. Many games are won or lost in this quarter. Once again, players rotate to the bench upon missing two questions.

One of my favorite questions from last Tuesday’s fourth quarter was about a girl that buys a beater car for $900, pays $200 down, has 10 equal payments and pays a flat 10% interest rate on the total beginning loan amount. What is the payment amount? Having once worked in that line of work, I almost immediately knew the answer was $77. The players have calculators, but it took one of our math whizzes 29 seconds to answer the question correctly. It would have been a lot tougher to have to compound the interest.

Last year, my second oldest tried out for the junior high team. He is now a starting player in his second year on the team. His team is feeling pretty cocky right now, having won the first three games of the eight-game season by at least 10 points each (one by 25 points). One of those games was against last year’s district champs. It is likely that they will get a humbling at some point over the next five games, but for now it is fun for them to revel in their success.

NAL is like sports competition for the nerdy kids, but the teams have an interesting mix. Some of the kids are popular. Most aren’t. Some have athletic prowess, but most don’t. It is amazing to see some of the less popular kids step up and shine. Some of the team members excel in specific areas. Some are just all around brainy. Many of them never thought of themselves in that way before they were coaxed into trying out for the team.

I highly endorse NAL. It is fun. It’s interesting (even for adults). It gives kids opportunities to grow mentally and culturally. I’m grateful to the teachers that coach teams and act as judges to make all of this possible.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Well Deserved Punishment

Spanked. That’s what happened to the GOP yesterday nationally. They got a serious spanking. And they deserved it. (The didn’t get spanked in Utah, of course. Everything remained pretty much status quo here in Utah.)

GOP wonks today are licking their wounds, philosophizing about where they went wrong, badmouthing the Democrats, talking about what to do next, and doing tortured contortions in an attempt to find some kind of silver lining. Some are noting that historically the president’s party loses an average of about the same number of seats that were lost yesterday in the House and Senate. So this is just business as usual, right? Uh, no.

Let’s face it; this is a shellacking for the GOP. The Democrats ran a very tight campaign machine. The Republicans didn’t. The Democrats did not lose one congressional incumbency, while the GOP lost many. Pollsters are saying that the GOP base didn’t turn out well, and that unaffiliated, independent, and moderate voters went overwhelmingly for Democrats.

There are lots of reasons for the loss, of course. It’s hard to pin this failure on one thing. The National Review editors say here, “This defeat had a thousand fathers.” But I think it can be boiled down to two key elements: Iraq and departure from Republican principles.

On #1, the problem is that most Americans think that we’re not winning in Iraq and that we don’t have a strategy that will get us there. Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell said on today’s Bill Bennett Show that while there is widespread discontent about Iraq in every demographic category, only about 20% think that leaving Iraq is the right solution. Most people, including most Democrats, simply want us to engage in a strategy that is calculated to win the war. They don’t think we have that right now.

On a side note, Caddell expressed concern that the new Democratic congressional leaders would misread displeasure with Iraq as anti-war sentiment. He stated that his data did not support that conclusion. James Taranto notes here that pro-Iraq incumbents won while key anti-Iraq GOP incumbents lost. Caddell explained that leadership would come from the most tenured Democrats, which come from the 60s school of liberalism and are far more liberal than the rank and file Democratic members of Congress. He is concerned that these people will push for getting out of Iraq at all costs, which is not a strategy that most voters will approve of.

In a move that was apparently obvious to most Washington insiders as just a matter of time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has tendered his resignation. The lame duck GOP Senate will have to approve President Bush’s replacement nominee, Robert Gates. I would be surprised if they did not quickly try to push through a series of nominees for various positions. Of course, being emasculated may prevent them from achieving this goal.

On issue #2, the GOP Congress has of late been the epitome of mismanagement and lack of concern about Republican principles. Rep. Jeb Hensnarling (R-TX) contritely pledges (here) a return “to the principles of Ronald Reagan and the Contract of America[, o]ur core vision of limited government, individual empowerment, a strong national defense and traditional values….” Well, now is a jolly fine time to do that. Might not 12 or 24 months ago have been a strategically better time to make this move?

The conservative base voted in a dispirited way because their guys in Washington seemed to pretty much ignore them, other than tossing them an obviously token piece of legislation and some worthless lip service now and then. I would argue that it’s not that the GOP majority in Washington has been incognizant of its base. It’s that they became addicted to the perks that go along with leadership. And like an addict that knows that what he is doing is bad for him but finds himself unable to stop it, the GOP majority has simply been unable to turn themselves around.

The voters sensed this, and figured that they needed to sever the congressional GOP’s ties to its cherished addictions. But that alone will not turn the GOP around. The GOP needs rehab. It needs a new crop of conservatives to step forward and wrest control of the party from their faltering fathers. These people won’t simply appear. That will require a lot of work by people with strong ideals. Will that happen? I don’t know. Who is going to take up the charge?

Even now, GOP wonks are consoling themselves with the thought that the next two years of Democratic leadership will be so bad as to cause voters to come running back to the GOP in droves in 2008. They shouldn’t flatter themselves. The seats that they have lost will not be so easily regained. They will have to do far better than just not being Democrats.

Geographical patterns are telling as well, as Fred Barnes discusses here. Concentrating on the South while ignoring the Northeast because it’s too liberal and ignoring the interior West because it seems secure has proven to be a losing strategy. Matthew Continetti says (here), “It would be difficult for the South to become more Republican. But it's easy for New England and the Northeast Corridor to become more Democratic.” And that goes for the West too.

Last year, former Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) warned Republicans (here), “When we act like us, we win. When we act like them, we lose.” The folks in charge didn’t get the message. Or perhaps they did, but they were already too far gone. And they knew it too. They saw the train wreck coming, but their entire campaign strategy seemed to consist of the message, “At least we’re not as bad as the Democrats.” Obviously, the voters chose to disagree with them.

GOP pundits are saying, “Well, we have two years to get it back together.” No they don’t. Not if they’re talking about 2008. They have about two months to get it together.

The GOP got walloped last night. And they have no one to blame but themselves. GOP diehards are thinking that the phoenix will quickly rise from the ashes of this defeat. Not unless they return to their core principles, exercise serious leadership on important issues, and do a heck of a lot of hard work.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Let the Voters Decide

A week after Halloween, Election Day has finally arrived. A coworker of mine was recently naturalized after living in the U.S. for many years. He is thrilled to have the opportunity to actually vote. I disagree with him politically, but I am almost as excited for him as he is for himself. I would like to see more of that kind of enthusiasm among long-time voters.

One of the things that bothers me about our current system is the feedback mechanism we have for elected positions that have less public visibility. I think about elected judges, for example. How many of us have spent time in one of their courtrooms? I have served jury duty exactly three times during my life, and I have testified in court once. I have been to small claims court a couple of times. These experiences have given me a very limited view of a very few judges. How am I to know whether to re-elect a judge or not?

Well, I pop open my handy-dandy Utah Voter Information Pamphlet to Section C, where I find information about judges. For each judge there is a very brief bio along with a listing of responses to 15 questions by a random sample of attorneys that have appeared before the judge. The 15 questions differ depending on judicial level, and there are only 13 questions for district and juvenile court judges. You need to see pages 3-4 to see what questions were asked. For judges whose courts include juries, a random sampling of jurors answered 15 questions (page 4).

Most of the questions revolve around courtroom management and the appearance of fairness. Attorneys that practice before a judge can obviously be tainted by certain biases. For one thing, many of the attorneys work with the judge on a regular basis. It’s kind of like being a coworker. Am I completely objective about my coworkers? I don’t know. I don’t mean to offend anyone in the legal profession, but my limited experiences inside the courtroom haven’t inspired a great deal of confidence in the competence of attorneys that practice before those courts. In other words, I feel that the attorney answers need to be taken with a large block of salt.

For each question, attorney surveys allow the respondent to choose among a range of six possible choices from totally favorable to inadequate. Almost all judges receive ratings of 90% or higher totally favorable on each question, unless they have done something really bizarre, like get themselves in the national media spotlight as the epitome of a bad judge, like Leslie Lewis of the Third Judicial District (Salt Lake, Summit, and Tooele Counties), and then they receive at least a 70% totally favorable rating. From a statistical viewpoint, ratings like these are so skewed as to be meaningless. It means that our survey methodology (questions, study group selection, groupthink in interpreting questions, gathering method, etc.) stinks.

Juror surveys are also meaningless. Jurors only get two possible choices for their answers: yes and no. It’s a pass/fail thing rather than a grade. Almost no judge (even the notorious Leslie Lewis) received less than 97% yeses on any question. Again, from a statistical view, these responses are meaningless.

I don’t mean to imply that we don’t have great judges in Utah, but just as reality dictates that all students cannot be A students, reality dictates that not all judges can in reality receive a top grade. (We don’t live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.) But for most voters, the only information they have to make decisions about judicial candidates is the Utah Voter Information Pamphlet, which is woefully inadequate for that purpose.

Similar arguments can be made about some of the county positions regularly on the ballot (surveyor, treasurer, clerk, auditor, etc.) Most voters just don’t have access to enough information to make an informed decision. Sure, we could all attend all of the city and county meetings, and we could go sit in the galleries of courtrooms, but who has the time for that?

Some claim that the answer to this problem is to remove these officials from the ballot and make them appointed by the executive. The argument goes that we allow the President to select important offices like U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, etc. All they need is for the Senate to confirm the executive’s choices. Why shouldn’t this same pattern work for every level of government?

I wholeheartedly disagree with this type of thinking. The best way to hold public officials accountable to the people is to make them occasionally stand for election. Do we want these officials to be accountable to the people or to the oligarchy? I don’t want a county auditor or sheriff that is beholden to the county commission. I want them to be accountable to the people of the jurisdiction they serve.

No, the answer is not to remove voter choice. The answer is to find a mechanism for providing better information to voters. Good government is partially the result of well informed voters.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

At War With the President

I am in the process of reading Bill Bennett’s history book America: The Last Best Hope. In discussing the War of 1812, Bennett makes an astute observation. He says (p. 204), “It is always trouble for a president when a war is identified with him—and not with the country’s enemy.”

The War of 1812 was the result of continued British interference in American trade, continued British pirating of American ships and sailors, British refusal to relinquish control of forts ceded to the Americans in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and the concept among Americans that Canada was a threat that was lightly guarded and easy prey.

The main point of contention was the British Orders in Council that stated the British position that forts in American territory would not be relinquished per the Treaty of Paris until Americans satisfied war debts from the Revolution. Even as the Americans worked to pay off the debts, the British sensed that the Americans were too weak and/or unwilling to take the forts by force, so they kept making new demands before the forts would be vacated.

Ironically, the Orders in Council were withdrawn in London just two days before Congress declared war. Transatlantic communication typically took at least three weeks back then. (Please note that Congress declared war. This was not simply an executive decision following Congress’ authorization of necessary force.) Our new president, James Madison, one of our nation’s Founders and the brilliant mind behind the Constitution, strongly pushed for the war, which was strongly opposed by the northern states. Bennett says (p. 198) that while Madison was one “of the greatest of the Founders, he was not well suited for governing what he had helped gather.”

The war went badly initially. US forces were defeated in several important battles, and they infamously fled in the face of British troops advancing on the nation’s new capitol (Washington, DC), allowing the British to burn the new Executive Mansion and the Capitol Building. It soon became apparent that the Canadians would not take invasion passively, so Canada wasn’t going to be an easy plumb to pick. The war became a debacle.

Part of the reason for the problem was that Madison and his predecessor Thomas Jefferson had worked for years to prevent the development of a national navy and were strongly opposed to a standing national army. World history to that point (and especially European history) showed that national military forces were difficult to control and often became threats to their own governments. Wishing to avoid this problem, Jefferson and Madison supported using only state militias. The War of 1812 and other international conflicts soon proved this to be an overly cautious stance that reflected a moralistic denial of reality.

As the war became increasingly unpopular, people began calling it, “Mr. Madison’s War.” The cry started in the northeast, which had long opposed Madison’s policies, but it eventually became more general throughout the country. But the war wasn’t without its bright sides. One American victory in Baltimore yielded our National Anthem. The war’s greatest victory for the Americans, the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred a couple of weeks after an end to the war had been negotiated by US and British representatives in Belgium.

The Treaty of Ghent basically left both sides in the same position they were at the beginning of the war, so it seemed that little was gained and much was lost. In retrospect, Bennett says (p. 211), “[T]he War of 1812 helped to form a new American consciousness. This American identity was fused in the crucible of battle.” But Madison’s political reputation never recovered from the war. Wikipedia notes here, “In 2006, historians ranked Madison's failure to avoid war as the #6 worst presidential mistake ever made.”

I find Bennett’s proposition compelling that a president is in trouble when a war becomes identified with him/her rather than with the enemy. Just during my early life, this occurred with both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon with respect to the Vietnam War. I think it is obvious that this has now occurred with George W. Bush with respect to the Iraq War.

Most of the discourse on the Iraq War, regardless of who is discoursing, seems to be tightly tied to President Bush. It even happens when the President and his administration’s officials are talking about it. The focus seems to be on the president rather than on the enemy we face, regardless of who is talking. I think Bill Bennett’s astute observation applies here. This focus is a symptom of the extent of the trouble in which the president finds himself at present.

It would be interesting to explore the reasons the Iraq War has become identified with President Bush, but only if the exploration could exclude the type of extreme commentary from either side that has become common in political discourse. This type of discussion yields plenty of sparks and heat, but not much light.