Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It's Worse, but It's Also Better

OK, I’m getting old. I can still enjoy some of the stuff that used to entertain me in high school, but a surprising amount of it simply doesn’t appeal to me any more. I find that I have difficulty being entertained by any of the mainstream stuff that is most popular among my teenagers’ peer groups. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, right?

I can remember being a teenager and hearing some older folks discuss MPAA ratings. They lamented that movies used to be rated for how good they were rather than how bad they were. A few years have gone by, and now it seems to me that the bulk of our most popular entertainment in one way or another celebrates the unwholesome and degrading, rather than the uplifting.

Part of this can be chalked up to common generational rift. As kids strive to come of age, they naturally find ways to differentiate themselves from their parents. This usually leads to some degree of rebellion. Since it is the parent’s job to promote the good and the normal (significant elements of the glue that holds society together), teens often strive against these mores to one degree or another. You know the routine. Wait a few years and the cycle repeats in the next generation.

Is it just my perception, or is entertainment as a whole becoming increasingly vulgar. HazZzMat’s Wonker thinks so. In this post he says:

“Today, if you're a guy entertainer, you look ugly, have the everyday speech patterns of a drunken sailor, have utter contempt for women, and convey emotion by screaming as loudly as you can, aided and abetted by state-of-the-art amplification. If you're a girl entertainer, you dress like a whore, have the everyday speech patterns of a streetwalker, have utter contempt for yourself, and convey emotion by screaming as loudly as you can, aka, "belting," aided and abetted by state-of-the-art amplification.”

And it’s no better in the film industry. One Hollywood old timer recently remarked that the only thing that could reliably be said about the Oscars in each of the last 30 years is that this is the worst year yet.

Wonker contends that CD sales are down because “people are tired of paying money for engineered crap.” So they are bypassing the industry with things like “single-music downloads and self-created podcasts.” Wonker also thinks that many consumers simply aren’t buying into entertainment content that is heavily politically charged. I would suggest that entertainment throughout time has often focused on political issues, but I don’t know how well that stuff sold at the time.

I see some of what Wonker is talking about just among my own teenagers. They create their own music and swap their songs with friends that also create their own music. They buy individual songs off the Internet. Come to think of it, so do I. The reason people are buying fewer CDs is that CDs aren’t the only game in town any more. Nor does ownership of a pile of CDs confer the kind of status it once did.

While I agree that the bulk of mainstream entertainment is increasingly coming to resemble raw sewage, there are far more entertainment options today than ever before. Just during my lifetime there has been a massive explosion of entertainment options. A few decades ago, the radio and the cinema used to be the only serious offerings, aside from the old Victrola and occasional live band performances at the local dance hall. Then came TV. Then came cassette tapes (I’d like to skip over the whole 8-track thing, if you please), video recorders, CDs, DVDs, and electronic files that can be stored on flash memory. Who can say for sure what is coming next? Live performances have proliferated as well.

I agree with entertainment critic Michael Medved, who says that not only is there more entertainment content available than ever before; there is also higher quality entertainment content available than ever before. But it’s more targeted than most of the mainstream stuff and can be somewhat difficult to find. You usually find out about it from a friend rather than from a media source. Or maybe your friend produces it herself/himself.

What will happen as technology improves to make it possible for serious video production to be done by amateurs the way it happens with music today? If present trends continue, the market will diffuse and more high quality content will become available. But the mainstream will continue to become louder, more frenetic, and raunchier.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Other Dad

The first time I met my father-in-law was over the phone. He was working in Honduras. Actually, at that time he was my future father-in-law. My future mother-in-law was back in Utah for a couple of weeks to take care of a few routine matters. I called my fiancĂ©’s father to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He asked me why I wanted to marry his daughter. I can’t remember what I said, but I was madly in love with her.

Months later, I met my father-in-law in person the evening before I got married. He had flown in that day from Honduras. I soon learned where my wife’s family’s touchable side came from when her dad reached out and pulled me into an embrace, calling me, “Son.” And I responded by calling him, “Dad.” That’s the way it went for the next couple of decades. This in no way diminished my relationship with my own dad.

My father-in-law was a smart man. He was an electrical engineer who was known for being able to tackle difficult tasks. He was a patriotic American. He served in the Air Force and spent his entire civilian career working for defense contractors. He enjoyed stints in foreign countries, but gave it all up for many years so that he could be at home with his family. But after becoming empty nesters, he and my mother-in-law decided to bulk up their retirement savings by taking higher paying jobs at foreign outposts once again. Only, this time, they could be together.

They worked in Central America, Europe, and the Middle East. During the first Gulf War and for a while afterward, my father-in-law worked in Saudi Arabia. He wouldn’t allow my mother-in-law to be there with him because he disagreed with the way the Saudi culture treated women, including foreigners.

During the times my father-in-law spent back in the States, we were able to spend concentrated time with him. I was recently burning DVDs of old home movies and was moved by a scene at the Salt Lake airport where my two oldest, who were about to turn four and two respectively, ran up and hugged my father-in-law incessantly as he walked in from the Jetway.

After years of globetrotting, my mother-in-law was ready to sink down roots again. After a short retirement, Dad discovered that it didn’t settle well with him. He was soon working in the Middle East again. After living in camps during the run-up to the war in Iraq, he was finally ready to call it quits. But even then he couldn’t just retire. He ended up helping with the office management of my brother-in-law’s contracting business, where he continued to work until recently.

My father-in-law was a quiet man. You could tell when he was getting hot under the collar because he would clench his jaw and roll his eyes. That pretty much means the same thing as when I turn into Mt. Vesuvius and the top of my head blows off in an eruption of fire and smoke. He had a loving personality and a truly unique wit, which was sometimes masked by his calm demeanor unless you knew him well.

Last fall Dad pulled something in his side when helping to move a pallet of building materials. Like an average guy, he demurred to get it treated. After a number of days the pain was so intense that he agreed to treatment. Eventually they discovered cancer lesions on his lung lining. Soon he was undergoing aggressive treatment for the cancer. We knew from the beginning that the kind of cancer he had kills most of its victims within 6-8 months, but we were hopeful that Dad was in the minority that achieves remission.

The treatment was almost as bad as the disease. But after a while it appeared that the cancer had halted its spread. Within a short time, however, it came back with a vengeance. It soon spread from the lining to the lung. And then to the other lung. And then to the brain. He had his ups and downs. My mother-in-law did her very best to care for him properly as he lost 80 lbs.

A couple of weeks ago he perked up and managed better than he had for weeks during the visit of some family members from out of town. As soon as their visit was finished, it was as if he was finished. He was never really coherent after that as he progressed through the normal stages of death. For the past couple of days he has been quite unresponsive.

Last night, as his loving wife held his hand and told him that if he needed to go, it was OK to go, he slipped the surly bonds of this mortal sphere and was released from the physical pain that has held him bound for the past few months.

How I will miss the man that raised my wonderful wife and has been a wonderful grandfather to my children. Rest in peace, Dad.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

It's For the Children

I once worked with a young lady that had never had chickenpox — until the disease nearly killed her at age 26. Chickenpox has varying severity among the population, but it is generally worse the later in life it is contracted. Not long after this event, a vaccine was developed that protects against the disease. This vaccine could have saved my coworker from the severe illness and expensive treatment she endured.

But vaccines are expensive to develop. And the best way turn a profit from a vaccine is to make its use general among the population. And the best way to do that is to get states to require it for children attending public schools. This has been a tried and true marketing strategy for drug companies for a long time now.

But we used to only vaccinate children for serious diseases that killed or maimed people. How grateful we are for vaccines for polio, smallpox, mumps, measles, Pertussis, and even tetanus, etc. Prior to the introduction of vaccines, these diseases were responsible for a significant number of deaths and cases of permanent health problems.

But chickenpox isn’t like that. Prior to vaccination becoming general, there were fewer than 100 deaths per year from the disease, with about 4 million cases per year. That’s a death rate of less than 0.04%. Most of those deaths were among adults. And while a few people experienced some permanent scarring, it was relatively minor and largely did not impact quality of life. In other words, the disease is a relatively mild disease, especially for children.

The ideal use of the chickenpox vaccine is for adults that have not naturally contracted the disease. But, since the development of the vaccine, drug company lobbyists have been successful in getting 41 states to require the vaccine in schoolchildren. My oldest three children contracted the disease naturally. My youngest two have been vaccinated for it.

Why did we allow this vaccine to become required for children? I believe that this has little to do with the welfare of the children. Instead, it has more to do with the changes in marriage practices and in adult employment. With the explosion of single-parent homes and the expansion of mothers of young children working full time, most young children have all of their available parents working. They are left to hired caregivers while their parents earn money. When having a built-in caregiver was more common, chickenpox was an inconvenience. But today it means the loss of a couple of weeks of income.

The length of the vaccine’s effectiveness has always been a question. Such is always the case when a new vaccine is introduced, until sufficient time has passed for experience to show the answer. A recent study shows that the vaccine begins to lose effectiveness after a few years. Conveniently for drug makers, this means that children need a booster shot between the ages of four and six. Although they still don’t know how effective the vaccine remains as children pass into adulthood, it is probably a good idea for those that have not had the disease to get booster shots as adolescents and as adults. Perhaps booster shots will be needed throughout life.

Although it was quite predictable, an unintended side effect of requiring children to be vaccinated for chickenpox is that the older children that have contracted the disease (as vaccine effectiveness has waned) have much more serious symptoms. Many young adults just getting out on their own neglect their own vaccinations. I predict that as our vaccinated children become adults we will see an expansion of the disease among young adults and that symptoms will be far more serious, even life threatening for some. Don’t be surprised a few years from now when there are far more than 100 deaths per year from chickenpox. I’m no medical expert or epidemiologist, but this seems to be a common sense forecast.

We should keep all of this in mind as we debate any governmental infringement on personal liberties. We should keep it in mind as we debate requiring schoolgirls to be vaccinated for cervical cancer. And we should definitely keep this in mind anytime anyone waves around the oldie but goodie claim that a regulation is primarily for the benefit of the children. If we had truly been concerned about the welfare of the children, we would have refused to require them to be vaccinated for chickenpox.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gross Incompetence?

Let’s face it. President Bush isn’t winning any popularity contests at the moment. With the rabid Left, he has gone from being detested in late 2000 to being evil today to the point of making Hitler look like a saint. Folks of the ‘reasonable’ Left want him unreasonably impeached. But none of these people were ever in his camp anyway.

Many in the flexible middle that used to stand with Bush have drifted away. But even many (most?) conservatives are sorely disappointed with him. Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, persuasively argues here that while President Bush has his heart in the right place, his execution of conservative principles has been nearly unfailingly incompetent. Bottum asks, “Apart from the still not certain pro-life views of the two new Supreme Court justices, where is there a major success to which one can point?”

Philosopher Michael Novak is quick to answer here and here. He is eager to point out “numerous accomplishments,” but argues especially that Bush “has changed the way in which government gets things done.” Novak questions why Bush’s opponents on the Left “oppose him so fiercely.”

In answer, he says, “As often as possible, in as many ways as possible, he is using as the dynamo of personal choice and the methods of the market, not direct state-management, in order to make government programs more effective and more efficient.” This threatens many cherished liberal positions.

I think the point could be argued another way: that Bush has successfully co-opted some liberal programs and talking points so that the Left’s constituents may sense a diminished need for them.

Novak lists a number of things Bush has successfully and quietly accomplished, including successive tax cuts and a reinvigorated economy following 9/11. He makes particular note of “new pension, medical, and school mechanisms [that] deeply affect families, not simply individuals.” He presumably means that these positively affect families. He says, “Bush has begun a major turn from the state toward the “little platoons” once celebrated by Burke, the “mediating institutions” that Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus emphasized twenty years ago. This is a profoundly conservative impulse.”

Bottum seems nonplussed by all of this. He argues that Bush has irretrievably messed up the war. Even if new policies succeed in achieving a win in Iraq, the perception that we have lost will supersede that victory and will haunt us for decades. He gloomily forecasts the nasty impact this will have on conservatism for a generation to come. Novak sharply disagrees with Bottum on this score and spends several paragraphs laying out a very hopeful (Pollyanna-like) projection, while admitting that the President held onto a failing Iraq policy for too long.

But Bottum isn’t done yet. Although conservatives were gaining in the abortion debate, he says, Bush came along and mucked it all up by allowing embryonic stem cell research, about which “the nation has yet to be convinced,” to reach a crisis stage, allowing “its opponents to shift the focus off abortion.” Bottum laments, “In all that he has tried to do--reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges--Mr. Bush has proved himself a conservative. Of course, along the way, he has also proved himself hapless.”

Bottum concludes passionately by asserting, “Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush's principles--and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.”

Looking at the disparity between Bottum’s and Novak’s views, it would seem that they’re talking about two different people rather than the same President Bush. It is like the proverbial group of blind men that were introduced to an elephant, some finding it to be like a snake, some like a wall, some like a tree, and some like a fire hose.

It would seem that Bush has done the good things listed by Novak so quietly that many conservatives are oblivious to them. And there is the question of weight of importance. Bottum seems to focus on a handful of major items while Novak seems to focus on a number of items that come across as somewhat less significant. Perhaps we simply aren’t continually harangued by the MSM about those issues.

I would agree with Bottum that Bush’s major problem at present is the air of incompetence that seems to pervade his administration. People often don’t mind being associated with an underdog, but they generally don’t want to line up with the Keystone Kops. And regardless of what really goes on inside the administration, Bottum is correct that perception is often more important than reality.

The question, however, is whether anyone could reasonably do a much better job. I have often referred to an excellent October 2005 essay by LaVarr Webb (scroll down to Wednesday Buzz) that addresses this point. Webb points out that we haven’t had a truly successful president for decades. The problem isn’t that we have elected ineffective leaders, but that “the job of governing the United States, as currently defined, is impossible for any individual. It has become too big a job.”

Why is the job undoable? Webb’s answer is priceless. “We’ve come to demand and expect so much out of the federal government that the reality is it will never meet our needs and wants. We want government to take care of us from cradle to grave, handle every disaster and emergency, feed us, house us, educate us, provide us health care, make sure our caps cover our ears, button our jackets, tie up our little booties and wipe our noses. And do all of these things without ballooning the federal debt or taxing us too much.”

Webb argues that the solution “is to devolve much of what the federal government does back to the states where it should be anyway. Let the federal government do what it was designed to do in the Constitution. Let states and local governments handle all the rest. The job of president in a properly balanced federal system would once again become doable.”

Check out Webb’s computer networking analogy. It offers some great lessons. And Webb isn’t wearing rose colored glasses either. He writes, “Doing this would be very difficult and, given current circumstances, almost impossible to implement.” But he argues that we won’t have effective presidential leadership until we do implement it.

Indeed, Novak writes in the same vein as Webb. It’s not the president that is incompetent, he argues, but the fact that “even in the best of times, government is mightily incompetent--and the bigger government gets, the more incompetent it becomes.” He indicates that this is not a recent problem. “Lincoln himself was frequently charged with incompetence, bumbling and simplemindedness.”

So, few people today are happy with President Bush. They have valid reasons for being unhappy. But the real issue is that they have unrealistic expectations. Webb is right that each government function needs to be sent to its most appropriate governmental level. I would argue that a number of functions should be eliminated altogether. If you need to ask where to cut, check out Chris Edwards’ proposals. Although many disagree, I believe that this presents a strong argument for holding the line against government growth.

Today a number of conservatives are nearly as enthusiastic about the impending completion of the Bush presidency as are their liberal cohorts. We might end up with a Democratic president next time around. Or we might end up with a Republican in the office. Regardless, if Webb is right, she/he will ultimately end up disappointing most of us — not because he/she would be a bad president, but because the current job description is not humanly possible to accomplish.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Religion By Any Other Name …

Last year I wrote a post called the Church of Recycling. My city is among those that have a curbside recycling program. We have lovely blue 90-gallon bins into which we can toss category 1 and 2 plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum, cans, and small electronics/appliances (but not glass). Every other week, a truck from the contracted service comes around and picks up the junk in our recycling bins and we are left with the warm assurance that we are doing our part to save the environment.

Only it turns out, as noted in this article by James Thayler, that the whole thing (which costs a chunk of change in our monthly bill) is not based on rational fact. Thayler cites one expert as using facts to argue that the whole recycling campaign is an “irrational religion” in which “perfervid faith compensates for lack of factual support.”

Today’s Standard Examiner includes an article noting that most Top of Utah towns do not sponsor curbside recycling due to its poor cost to benefit ratio. The article quotes Clinton City Manager Dennis Cluff as being disgusted with a visit to the presumably temporary recycling storage facility employed by the city he formerly managed in Oregon. He said, “There was mountains and mountains of storage along the Columbia River” due to a lack of market for the materials.

Many Davis and Morgan County localities are achieving a measure of recycling by shipping their solid waste to the Wasatch Management District (a.k.a. Davis Burn Plant). Although the plant has had air pollution problems in the past, it performs much better since new equipment was installed. Trash is burned to create steam and electricity, which is sold to Hill Air Force Base.

Everybody wins, because the “best curbside recycling program in the country only keeps 15 to 20 percent of the trash out of a landfill,” while the “burn plant diverts about 50 percent of the waste from the landfill.” The ash byproduct represents only about 10% of the initial waste volume and is “is more stable than piles of garbage.” (I’m not sure how the math works on that one.)

The Standard Examiner article agrees with the Thayler article about glass recycling. There is no market for it. Why? Because the base materials for making glass are among the most plentiful and inexpensive elements on the face of the earth, and because it’s cheaper to make new glass than to melt down and reform old glass.

It is no secret that my city’s recycling program is not self supporting. But the fee is not split out separate from our regular garbage fee, so it is difficult to know exactly how much I pay for the service each month. I am trying to find out how effective our service is, how much of the material eventually goes to the landfill, and how much is sitting in ‘temporary’ storage somewhere.

It turns out that answers to these questions are difficult to come by, either because officials don’t know the answers or don’t care. It seems that these officials are a lot like me and my neighbors. (Heck, they are my neighbors.) Once the bins are emptied and the trucks leave the city limits, we’re like the proverbial three monkeys that see, hear, and speak no evil.

I am not optimistic that anything will change even if the answers to these questions turn out to be less than supportive of our city’s system. The good citizens of my city have largely bought into the goodness of the program. The dogma has already won out. The facts will matter little because we are addicted to those environmentally friendly warm fuzzies that warm our hearts when we wheel our blue bins out to the curb.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Recognizing Truth

Astronomer John Pratt, who specializes in religious chronology, has an interesting article on how to recognize truth. I give fair warning to those that are not religiously inclined, that Pratt’s article includes a religious view. I also give fair warning to those with a religious view that Pratt includes positive mention of paranormal events. But being a PhD, Pratt includes a scientific view as well. In fact, he attempts to provide a whole and rounded view of the matter, rather than a narrow approach. Indeed, he rejects a narrow approach, arguing that truth is truth regardless of its source.

Pratt begins by exploring how we learn as infants and moves on from there. He notes that our five senses can be easily fooled individually, while we are less easily fooled when multiples of these senses are involved. He discusses the validity of intuition and conscience, although, some would reject these sources or perhaps describe them differently.

After citing this Wikipedia article about ESP, which takes a level approach to the topic, Pratt includes a fun story (in footnote #4) about a school science fair experiment that employed Rhine’s forced-choice model and produced Rhine’s sheep-goat effect.

“A friend of mine helped his son do an interesting experiment for a junior high science fair. He offered grade school children a candy bar if they could roll a certain number with dice. He found that the older children could not beat the laws of chance, but that several in kindergarten and first grade easily cleaned him out of candy bars, far beyond the laws of chance.”

There are several potential criticisms of this experiment and what it means. For example, how was the roll of the dice controlled? Following multiple controlled tests over many years, Princeton researchers concluded “that humans could alter the behavior of random number producing machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000.” But I don’t know if they included young children in their tests.

Maybe I’ll try this little dice experiment with my own kids. They have a broad enough age range to provide a fair test. And I think I could easily devise a contraption that reliably rolls dice randomly. If nothing else, it would be a fun family activity.

Sorry for the detour. Pratt applauds the fact that teenagers learn to question authority and begin to think for themselves. He discusses the value of both left-brain and right-brain learning and decries attempts to focus only on one of these to the exclusion of the other. “The right brain can process many pieces of information at once, whereas the left is best at looking at things in a series one at a time.”

Delving into left-brain approaches, Pratt discusses logic, citing a variety of logical approaches, and notes that few today have ever had a formal course in logic. He mentions questioning all new premises, reasoning from extremes, and thought experiments. He discusses the value of the scientific method, but is careful to say that it is inadequate for discovering every kind of truth. He notes that some matters simply cannot be tested using the scientific method, but that this does not necessarily render them untrue. He also discusses the importance of proper context.

Pratt hits upon several right-brain systematic approaches. He cautions against allowing emotions to become a controlling factor, because they can cloud our perception of reality. Right-brain thinking does not mean emotional thinking. Pratt mentions drawing a picture, pattern matching, dreams, learning from nature, appropriate regard for authority, and divine revelation. Don’t read too much into this. Read what he has actually written and judge it for yourself.

I particularly enjoyed Pratt’s discussion of questioning new premises, reasoning by extremes, and thought experiments. He uses these methodologies to explore the statement, “All life is of equal value,” which probably can’t be answered through the scientific method. In a few paragraphs, Pratt effectively demonstrates the absurdity of this statement.

Pratt says that he has worked on this article for a couple of years, and that he still finds no consistent “sure-fire way to recognize truth….” Instead, he shares “a variety of techniques, all of which seem to work sometimes.” He seems to acknowledge that his discussion is incomplete. While incomplete, it is thought provoking and provides some good tools for discovering truth. I recommend Pratt’s article to those interested in recognizing truth.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Rules Have Changed

In my last post, I mentioned that Rudy Giuliani appeals to many Republicans because he is perceived as being strong on national security. And apparently perception is what is significant here, as was mentioned in the commentary. Democracy Lover wonders in one of his comments how Giuliani, who is “not with the Republican base on guns, abortion and gays” could manage to land the Republican nomination.

I must admit that I have been scratching my head about that one for many weeks now. I think part of the answer to that lies in the fact that 9/11 changed everything. It dramatically reordered priorities. During the 2000 campaign, G. W. Bush espoused a realist view of national security. Within a day of 9/11, he turned into a neocon, as did many in his administration, when being attacked on our home soil became far more real than realism theory. Administration members that didn’t go along were changed out one by one.

But that’s not the whole story. Although national security is a trump issue for many conservatives, social and fiscal conservative issues are not completely dead. In fact, it is arguable that the GOP’s failure to deliver on fiscal conservative issues sealed their doom in last November’s elections. So what else is going on here?

Yesterday an experienced political campaigner opened my eyes. It comes down to the changes in the primary election process, which I wrote about last month. While the trend of states moving to earlier points in the cycle has been occurring for some time now, it is reaching critical mass. We used to start with the Iowa caucuses, where conservatives are socially and fiscally conservative. The campaign trail next led to New Hampshire, where the conservatives are libertarian. This was followed by South Carolina, where Republicans are from the conservative wing of the party.

The campaigner said that television advertising in these three markets might run somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million. Campaigns were able to effectively organize in these markets with relatively small numbers of people. Once that initial flurry was over, there was a bit of a breather. This allowed the dust to settle. We were then able to see who truly had momentum. Many contenders were weeded out. Many donors waited on the sidelines until that point, allowing survivors a respite to ply those donors for funds to continue their campaigns. But this whole process put too much power into the hands of relatively few. It is not surprising that most other states felt they were getting the shaft.

Flash forward to 2008. The plan is to begin like normal, with the Iowa caucuses on January 21. New Hampshire will hold its primary one week later — this time in tandem with Florida. I’m sure folks in the Granite State are not very happy about sharing their traditional first primary date with folks from the Sunshine State (Iowa holds caucuses, not a primary election). This will be followed by South Carolina just four days later.

This four-state run lasts only 12 days, so candidates will need to effectively campaign in all four markets at once. Adding Florida to the mix substantially alters the equation. The combined populations of IA, NH and SC total about 8.5 million, while Florida alone has about 18 million people. And Republicans in Florida are not like Republicans in these three small states. Not only did Floridians elect Mark Foley, but the state also has a significant GOP-leaning Cuban ex-pat population that has a specialized focus. Suddenly candidates need to have a huge marketing arm aimed at those with diverse interests, rather than being able to hold a narrow focus with a small budget.

But what happens next changes the dynamics of the race even more. Just three days after SC, candidates will have to be competitive in 15 states (some of these have not completely committed yet), including the population centers of California and New York. The total population of these states is more than 125 million. And Republicans in these states are diverse. GOP voters in CA, NJ and NY are far more moderate than GOP voters in MO, NC, OK and UT as a whole. The “GOP base” that is often referenced is actually far more diverse than many think it to be. And this primary election will prove it.

On February 5, 2008 (Giga-Tuesday), GOP hopefuls are going to have to be competitive in six markets with populations in excess of 8 million. The campaigner I mentioned said off the top of his head that TV advertising alone in these markets could run $100 million. That’s 100 times the amount George Bush had to have in his coffers by the same time in 2000. Since these primaries happen just 15 days after the whole cycle begins, candidates have to be competitive in 19 states all at the same time (and probably more, because some states come right on the heels of Giga-Tuesday).

The upside is that this process will likely produce a nominee that will be more competitive in the presidential race in November. The rules have changed. Candidates won’t have to zig so far to the right only to zag to the center after the primaries. Small state conservatives that are often more socially conservative than their large state siblings no longer have a lock on determining the party’s nominee. This is why Giuliani can actually be a contender for the GOP nomination. It is also why John McCain, who lost momentum in SC in 2000 for being too liberal, is still viable. In fact, some observers think that Mitt Romney may have hurt his chances in this new primary process by running too far to the right.

But there are drawbacks to this brave new world. Candidates used to be able to get involved and become viable with determination, work, and a small war chest. As they built steam, money came in that helped them continue. Candidates will now have to be completely viable before the primary election starts. They will need humongous war chests far in advance of the Iowa caucuses. Second tier candidates that used to still have opportunity going into Iowa will have no such chance next year unless they organize and get a lot of money this year. Presidential politics just became vastly more expensive. And that means lots more backroom deals. Any wonder why all major candidates are foregoing public funds this time around?

Of course, the major drawback to most Americans will be that we will in effect have two national presidential campaigns. The first one will be over long before a dozen straggler states hold their primaries in May and June. By this time next year we will probably know who the two major party candidates will be. And then we will suffer through eight interminable months of head-to-head presidential campaigning. If you think Americans are suffering war fatigue, wait until you see how much campaign fatigue they have by November 2008.

Perhaps it will be so bad that people will want to actually get serious about reforming our primary election process. There are many reform proposals out there, ranging from complete public funding to awarding states primary election positions similar to the way the NBA draft is run. Perhaps this next election cycle will prompt a substantive national debate about how we should go about determining our presidential nominees.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Little Conservative Enthusiasm for Romney

Mitt Romney has his cadre of strong supporters, but as I have said before, conservatives aren’t necessarily buying into his conservativeness. Romney’s problem in this arena was pointed up this past weekend at the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where Romney barely eked out first place in a straw poll.

According to political pundit John Fund, Romney used his business and organizational acumen to endlessly work the crowd. He “delivered a pitch-perfect message that sought to unite economic, social and national-security conservatives.” But he only managed to pull out 21% of the vote. Rudy Giuliani gave a rousing but boilerplate address, didn’t mention the hot button social issues, and didn’t work the crowd. Yet he managed to get 17% of the vote.

Senator McCain, perhaps sensing how much history he has in alienating the CPAC crowd, didn’t even bother to show up. He still mustered 12% of the vote. Senator Brownback got 15% and Newt Gingrich (who may be able to influence the debate but has no chance whatsoever of either winning the GOP nomination or becoming president) got 14%. Fund also notes that when RNC members were recently polled, Romney came in second place (20%) to nobody (33%).

This means several things. One is that it is still very early in the presidential race. Most of the stuff that used to happen at this stage flew under the radar. But nowadays news organizations are so hungry for some tidbit of news that they report on candidates’ ancestors (Romney, Giuliani, Obama), as if the candidates could do anything about whom they descended from.

Another thing it means is that conservatives and Republicans (not necessarily synonymous terms) are still shopping around. They aren’t ready to buy yet. And that’s probably the way it should be. Most are still in a casual dating mode. They’re not ready to settle on a single suitor just yet.

It also seems clear that many conservatives and Republicans aren’t happy with the current field of candidates. Some are holding out for something better. This means that there are excellent opportunities for second tier candidates. But those looking for the ideal conservative candidate will probably still be unhappy with their available choices by next summer. Think back to the 2000 campaign, where 11 (more or less) serious GOP candidates generated little enthusiasm among conservatives.

And perhaps CPAC isn’t the bellwether some think it is. McCain’s campaign decided to skip CPAC because they think he can win without engaging those folks. Fund notes that among CPAC attendees, “79% described themselves as Reagan Republicans, whereas only 3% called themselves George W. Bush Republicans.” He also notes that Reagan addressed CPAC a dozen times, while G. W. Bush never has. Despite this, Bush has twice been elected to the presidency. Either the CPAC’s influence is waning, or it has never had the kind of influence some have purported it has.

It should also be noted that many conservatives and Republicans find Romney rather light in the arena of national security. They had the same concern about G. W. Bush. But in those halcyon pre-9/11 days, few gave this resume element as much weight as they do today. Giuliani and McCain rank much better in this arena. Even if Romney had rock solid conservative credentials, he would still suffer for his lack of appearance of national security capabilities. Second tier candidates should take notice of this.

With many months yet to go before most Americans get serious about thinking about their next president, Romney has plenty of opportunity to build support. So do all of the other candidates. But at this point, it’s going to be very difficult for any of them to further remake who they are and what they stand for. Much will depend on what voters think as they get to know the candidates better. And with the myriad factors involved, nobody can say with any degree of certainty how that will turn out.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Tribal War Against Modernity

Victor Davis Hanson says (here), “[I]f we have an orphaned war that is dubbed lost, it nevertheless can still be won. None of our mistakes has been fatal; none is of a magnitude unprecedented in past wars; all have been cataloged; and few are now being repeated.” Hanson’s article includes a very fine catalog of our failings in Iraq, but as has been the case throughout the conflict, he takes an optimistic view of the path ahead.

Some would agree with him. Some would not. I think the best option available at this point is to hope that General Petraeus’ plan is somewhat effective. But conservative family researcher Stanley Kurtz thinks that our problem in the Middle East is far more intractable than most have thought.

A couple of weeks ago Kurtz published two provocative articles (part 1, part 2) where he explores what he believes is at the root of Islamic extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. I have waited to write about this because he promised to discuss in a future article what should be done about it. That should be interesting, because the problem he discusses is so deeply entrenched in the culture that a solution is difficult to imagine. Alas, after two weeks of waiting, part 3 has yet to be published.

Kurtz’s theory is that the preferred family structure in many Middle Eastern societies results in a natural conflict with modernity. It all comes down to exogamous and endogamous marriage practices. Exogamous marriages between clans open them to external thought and external alliances. Endogamous marriages, on the other hand, create extremely tight “self-sealing” clans that shun external influences.

Long before Islam was founded, the preferred marriage practice in many parts of the Middle East was within clans, and it still is. Clans are defined solely along patriarchal lines. Although most Americans find the idea anathema today, the practice in significant swaths of the Middle East has been and is today marriage between parallel cousins. That is, marriage to a child of your father’s brother. Being a strictly patriarchal order, this strengthens the clan against external thought and external influences.

Not all of the results of this are bad, Kurtz notes. Endogamy provides “benefits of heightening social cohesion and preserving cultural continuity.” But endogamous societies rely mostly upon who you are rather than what you know or can do. Also, “Instead of encouraging cultural exchange, forging alliances, and mitigating tensions among competing groups, parallel-cousin marriage tends to wall off groups from one another and to encourage conflict between and among them.”

Endogamy specifically goes against integrative factors such as “cultural communication, adaptive development, and mutual trust,” which are essential elements to coping with modernity. Kurtz explores examples of how the Middle East has found successfully implementing modern business organizations to be an impossible task, unless they are significantly staffed with foreign help. He discusses how Middle Easterners moving to the West often have incredible difficulty integrating, even after generations.

Kurtz is quick to note that endogamous marriage is not an Islamic tenet. However, religious reasons are often cited for continuing its practice. Indeed, it was Mohammed’s ability to bring so many endogamous tribes and clans together under a single head that was one of his crowning achievements. But Kurtz suggests that this achievement now threatens our entire world.

I find Kurtz’s thesis intriguing. He shows no malice toward Islam, but does harbor significant concerns about preferred family structure in many traditionally Islamic societies. I believe he makes his point quite convincingly. It makes me ponder the significance of family structure as we experiment and tinker with it in Western societies. The impacts of this tinkering are unpredictable and may result in significant problems many generations down the road.

What I want to know is what Kurtz proposes to do about the problem he has defined. I’m not smart enough to perceive any reasonable way to solve it. I think that it’s quite obvious that there is no quick fix. Is it even possible to implement a solution that could prove useful any time during the life of children being born today? Come on, Dr. Kurtz, let’s have the next part in the series.

(A full library of Stanley Kurtz’s NRO articles can be found here.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Don't Worry, Be Happy

“Smiles! Smiles, everyone!”* The 2007 legislative spending orgy has come to a conclusion. Although there’s some grousing about funding of some social programs and ethics reform went down the toilet, the vast majority of those involved in the legislative process seem to be happier and fatter than ever. (See D-News, SLTRIB articles)

The legislature did cut loose with a tax cut of about 14% of the unprecedented surplus. That cut comes by way of a reduction in food sales tax and a new flat(ter) income tax system, both of which start on Jan. 1, 2008.

I’ve already addressed the magnitude of the second year of the education cash throwing competition. I’m glad that teachers will be getting raises. But I’m not so glad that exuberant educrats are walking around saying, “KA-CHING!” I wonder how many more money mismanagement scandals will pop up as the bureaucracy receives its new cash infusions.

Lawmakers also focused a lot of cash on transportation for the second year in a row. This falls squarely into the realm of government responsibility. While the projects being funded are needed and will likely produce many salutary effects, I am concerned that gouging and mismanagement seem to go hand in hand with enormous expenditures. Here’s hoping that, unlike school districts, transportation has systems in place to minimize and prevent these kinds of problems.

I have already discussed my disposition with regard to the soccer stadium. And I had my little tirade over joining the swarm of states that are pushing their presidential primary election ever earlier.

It’s difficult to list every destination for cash flows approved by lawmakers. Right now tired legislators, lobbyists, and bureaucrats are simply giddy with the intoxication of managing so much spending without the rancor that proliferated last year. But don’t worry. It’s all good. That is, unless you happen to be of the opinion that limited government best preserves individual rights.

* (For the record, I always thought Ricado Montalban was much better as Khan than as Mr. Roarke).