Friday, December 28, 2007

The Reason for Voter Dissatisfaction

“As the gross tonnage of politics rises, so too does public disenchantment.” —Daniel Henninger

Daniel Henninger contends in this WSJ article that the reason for voter malaise with the current presidential campaign “may be that a Web-stoked media has demoted the office of the presidency itself as an animating idea and elevated the mechanics, the sport, of elections.” He notes that we have far more information available about our candidates than at any point in history, and yet, “The more we know, the less we know.”

Peggy Noonan writes in this WSJ article that we don’t expect a perfect candidate or even a candidate that approaches greatness. Rather, “We just want a reasonable person. We would like a candidate who does not appear to be obviously insane. We'd like knowledge, judgment, a prudent understanding of the world and of the ways and histories of the men and women in it.”

Noonan acknowledges that this is a grown up thought, but Henninger seems to think that voters really don’t really want what Noonan says we want at all. He cites Tony Blair as having opined that with the rise of total and immediate data, “judgment has fallen because less time is available to think.” To bolster his contention that the presidential election has been turned into some sort of sport, Henninger discusses polling data showing that most voters just want to win, regardless of how well a given candidate might govern. But this new obsession, he says, “like most obsessions tends to induce disappointment.”

Here’s how it works. We spend two years with candidates battling it out and everyone watching each play as if the event is some kind of endless Superbowl. Only, at the end of the Superbowl, rings are handed out, and one side basks in glory while the other side lowers its collective head. There’s a lot of talk about the game, but it’s pretty much all over until the following season.

In the sport of presidential election, once the game is over, the task of governing is just beginning. Yes, one side exults while the other side licks its wounds. But then we are set up for disappointment. No candidate, regardless of how good she or he may be, is capable of rising to the level to which our expectations have been built over the election cycle. After a couple of years of reality, we are left hungering for the game of the next election cycle.

Henninger says that “the electorate is being ill-served, and knows it.” They “are not neurotic. They are just deeply annoyed.”

Noonan, for her part, lists the various Democratic and GOP candidates and places them either in the “reasonable” or “not reasonable” category. As with any pundit, her judgment can certainly be challenged. But it is interesting to see who she places in which column and how she justifies these assignments.

I’d like to think that American voters are grown up enough to put the weight of their support behind the ideals Noonan espouses, but I think Henninger may actually be more correct. It seems that the main thing that matters to many of them is whether their side wins, not whether the person elected next November is actually suited to govern our nation well.

On the other hand, Jonah Goldberg suggests in this NRO article that our hyper-extended presidential campaign simply “provides a nice reminder of how unimportant politics really are.” Although politics are important, and the average voter is very dissatisfied with the federal government and our federal politicians at present, Goldberg contends, “Very few people define their lives politically — a fact for which we should all be grateful.”

For years there has been nearly continuous hand wringing about how disinterested and uninvolved Americans are in politics. Of this, Goldberg says, “There’s merit to the complaint; but there’s also truth to the notion that Americans understand that the most important stuff lies elsewhere.”

In other words, the ‘voters’ Henninger and Noonan are talking about are mostly the political junkies that really pay attention to politics. The rest of the voters will generate a certain level of concern when necessary. Perhaps their judgment will ultimately prove to be superior to that of the political junkies.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Stories, Songs

Yesterday as Sacrament meeting (as LDS weekly congregational worship services are called) was about to start, there was some rushing around going on as the choir prepared to perform its annual Christmas program. The choir director approached me and asked if I would read a story called No Room at the Inn over the pulpit between two of the musical numbers.

This is one of those incredibly sentimental stories that is sure to elicit choked sobs from the congregation. It is also just that — a story. Snopes classes stories somewhat similar to this one as pure legend. But the script I was asked to read did not try to present it as a factual event. And it has been common practice, even from early times, to use fictional stories to demonstrate gospel principles.

The request caught me somewhat off guard. Of course, I had heard the story many times before, but I had never had to read it to an audience. I quickly reviewed the story during the first few minutes of the meeting. I wanted to be prepared.

When I read out loud, I like to do it with feeling, emphasis, appropriate pacing, and even drama. When I read to my kids, I like to make the stories fun and interesting. I use different tones of voice and/or accent for different characters. I even like to do this when I read scriptures aloud. If I have to read aloud, I find no reason to read in a dry monotone. I might as well make it interesting. It also helps me gain insights as I employ dramatic reading.

But my main point of reviewing the story was to make sure I knew exactly where the sentimental grab point was. To successfully read something like this, you’ve got to steel yourself and know where to put up an emotional barrier so you don’t choke up yourself. But you can’t make the emotional wall too sturdy, or else the words you read will come across as stiff and impersonal. It has to be done just right.

I prayed for strength. The story went quite well. I felt good about my dramatic emphasis. I approached the sentimental grab point and tried to erect the appropriate balance of emotional protection. As I read the part where the slow but pure boy insists that Joseph and Mary take his own room, I felt my throat start to tighten, but then I caught myself and finished the story just fine. It had the desired impact on the congregation. I was relieved that my reading part was over.

But that wasn’t even the highlight of the program. My five-year-old daughter was asked to sing a solo of a Primary song called Picture a Christmas. My little girl has received no voice training, and definitely does not have perfect pitch, but she loves to sing. She walks around the house singing sweet songs over and over again (much to her brothers’ chagrin). What she lacks in training, she makes up for in purity. She did a lot better in practice than she did during the performance (there are a lot of people in the congregation), but she sang with such innocent purity that it just melted everyone’s hearts.

The final number our choir sang was called Peace, Peace. I had never heard this number before we started practicing it. The final portion of the song has the congregation sing Silent Night with the choir harmonizing with Peace, Peace. We had practiced many times, but I had never heard it with the Silent Night portion until we performed. The moment the congregation joined in was extraordinary. I was very nearly overcome to the point that I could not sing. It was marvelous.

For me, Christmas is a wondrous time of the year. We have a lot of fun with it, but we don’t go crazy with decorating and gift buying. My seven-year-old is just about dying right now, anticipating tomorrow morning. We have already done many special events with family and friends, and we have more yet to come.

Here’s wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season.

Friday, December 21, 2007

My Time on Jury Duty

I’ve been on jury duty several times, but I’ve only been seated as a member of a jury once. All of the other times, I’ve been excused early in the jury selection process, although, I’m not sure why that is.

The wrangling that goes on to select a jury is a very intricate ritual where prosecutors and defenders each try to get a jury they believe will be most advantageous to their case. The idea behind this is that the competition between the two sides should produce a fair outcome. Some notable cases point out the fact that it doesn’t always work out that way.

It was several years ago that I was surprised to find myself seated as a member of a jury. We were a somewhat diverse group. Within 15 minutes of the beginning of the case, however, it was obvious that the defendant was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. But the whole affair seemed to me to be the sorriest mess I had ever seen. It seemed like a total waste of taxpayer time and money.

The Case
What it boiled down to was that one druggy dirtbag had ripped off $600 from another druggy dirtbag. The thief was literate, while the victim was illiterate. The victim owned a home. He wanted to refinance his mortgage, but he knew it would be difficult because his credit was bad. The thief was temporarily crashing with his girlfriend at the victim’s home.

The thief brought the victim an ad from the back of a seedy magazine that offered people with bad credit an opportunity to refinance their mortgage. But they first had to wire $600 to this company in Canada in order to find out if they qualify. Everyone on the jury quickly figured out that this was just a scam, but the prosecutor told us that whatever suspicion we might have about it was not important to the case.

At any rate, the literate thief offered to help the illiterate victim to wire the funds. They went to a grocery store that did that kind of thing, filled out the paperwork, put down the cash, got a receipt, and left. About an hour later, the thief returned, said he had changed his mind, and wanted his money back. He presented falsified ID. They gave him the money, and he left. All of that was captured on the store’s video surveillance system. While the victim was at work, the thief and his girlfriend stole some stuff from the house and moved out.

It took the illiterate victim a few days to figure out what had happened. He contacted the mortgage scammers, who responded that they had never received the wire transfer. He went to the grocery store, which showed that the money had been refunded before it was sent. The victim apparently had an ongoing relationship with the police, so he filed a police report.

In the meantime, the thief and his girlfriend were crashing in a garden shed in someone’s backyard. The police stumbled onto the guy when they were investigating another crime. In court, the prosecution not only produced the surveillance tape, but also produced the clerk that took the wire transfer order and refunded the money. The defendant sat in court with clean-cut hair and a turtleneck long-sleeve shirt. On the tape he had very long, stringy hair, a tank top, and lots of tattoos. The clerk said that he couldn’t positively say that he was the same man without seeing his tattoos.

The judge had the clerk go into his quarters (along with the attorneys) and describe exactly what kind of tattoos he expected to see at what location on the defendant. He then had the defendant show his tattoos in the privacy of the judge’s quarters. The judge then reported to the jury that the defendant had several “distinctive” tattoos that involved certain “words” and certain “icons” that made them rather unique, and that the clerk had described the tattoos with preciseness. (Note to bad guys: cover up your ‘distinctive’ tattoos before you let someone see you committing a crime.)

This whole process seemed completely inane. Could anyone possibly doubt that the dirtbag was guilty? But the real problem was that, since the offence involved ID fraud and wire fraud, it was a felony; although, it involved only $600.

After many hours of court, the jury was finally sequestered with a list of specific instructions. We elected a foreman, who turned out to be a very good choice. The guy had done volunteer work with illiterate people. He also had a seemingly innate sense of fairness, as well as a calm, level-headed approach to matters. Even with his deliberateness, it only took us a short time to return the guilty verdict. There was really no other choice.

The Meat of the Matter
Then the judge revealed to us the whole purpose for which we had been convened. The defense only had the slightest hope of getting their client cleared of the charges. They had pretty much assumed that he would be found guilty. But this was his third felony, which meant that he would receive a mandatory long-term sentence.

We were next charged with determining whether the defendant had in fact been convicted of two prior felonies. Both of the felonies had occurred in California. When the court officer in California had sent the certified version of the prior convictions, she had left off the final page of one conviction that included the actual judge’s signature and court stamp. She had subsequently faxed a copy of it, but it was not included in the certified package. If we were to say that we couldn’t tell whether the defendant had two prior felonies, the prosecution would only have brought it back to court when they received a certified copy.

It took us longer to come to a consensus on this matter than it did on the original conviction, ostensibly because it was now clear what was at stake. This guy was going up the river for a long time for bilking another dirtbag out of $600. One woman, in particular, really struggled with doing this. She wondered whether justice was being served. But when the foreman finally got it through her head that it was only a matter of time before the harsh sentence was handed down — it would either be our jury or a later jury that would find that this was this man’s third felony — she finally agreed that it was futile to hold out. She still didn’t like the way it made her feel, but she agreed that we had properly followed the law.

It was late in the day by the time I left the courthouse. I was somewhat perturbed that we had wasted the time of many people and spent a lot of taxpayer dollars trying a case that was so bluntly obvious. But on the other hand, we do guarantee the right to a fair trial by a jury of peers. We had made sure that happened. It’s just that the whole affair was a sorry, pitiful mess. As far as I could tell from the thief’s other two convictions, this guy was not a violent offender. He lived a life that I would consider hell on earth. I’m not sure how prison could be much worse. And it seemed from this guy’s other non-felony legal problems that he was not going to break out of his pattern of crime any time soon.

Many argue that our prisons are filled with so many non-violent offenders that we can’t keep the violent offenders and the really dangerous people in prison long enough. But what do you do with a person that is dead set on continuing a life of petty crime? You can’t just leave them loose either.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Experience As a Witness In Court

It would normally have been a lazy August Saturday. But some of my friends talked me into going with them to do some spelunking in Logan Cave. A couple of the guys were quite experienced and had formal training (and gear). After spending four hours exploring, wading through icy underground rivers, wriggling through tight spots, and getting a few bruises, we emerged into the beautiful mountain sunshine.

After drying off and removing as much of the mud as possible, we climbed into our vehicles and headed down Logan Canyon. It was afternoon by this time, and traffic on the two-lane road was heavy. One of our cars made its way into traffic. After a few more vehicles went by, the car I was in made it onto the road. But we weren’t on the road long before we noticed a problem.

The Drunk Driver
The fourth vehicle ahead of us was maneuvering somewhat erratically. When a third lane opened for a short distance, the vehicle behind that guy got around him. The road meanders through the beautiful canyon, so passing opportunities are limited. Finally, another vehicle succeeded in passing the slower moving, erratically driven vehicle. It was about that time that it dawned on us that the guy must be drunk. None of us in the car had ever had a drink before, so we were altogether unfamiliar with drunkenness.

This was in the days before cell phones, but my friend’s car was equipped with a CB radio. Unfortunately, within the steep canyon walls, we were unable to raise a response via the radio. The drunk guy kept swerving into the dirt on the side of the road, but when the Suburban between us tried to pass him, he swerved back the other way and nearly ran the Suburban off the other side of the road. After several attempts, the Suburban made it.

We then got to see the full effect of this guy’s wild driving. He managed some curves remarkably well. But other times he would swerve all the way into the dirt on the right side of the road and then over correct to drive in the dirt on the left side. Somehow, every time he did that, it happened to be when a space in oncoming traffic occurred. He could easily have hit an oncoming vehicle head on. We honked and flashed our lights at the guy to try to get him to pull over, but this had no effect. We didn’t dare try to pass the jerk.

Finally we followed the road around the edge of the Utah State University campus and began heading west on 4th North in Logan. Although the road had widened out into two lanes on each side, the drunk kept sliding partially into the lanes to his left and right, nearly side swiping a motorcyclist. We still couldn’t raise anyone on the CB, so we followed the guy until he pulled into a Chevron station on the southeast corner of 4th North and Main. He got out of his car and went into the restroom.

The Arrest
I hopped out of the car and ran to the Safeway store next door, where I called the police dispatcher on the pay phone out front. She kept me on the phone until a police cruiser arrived. The officer asked me to sit in the passenger side of his vehicle and give him the whole story. He pulled up along side my friend’s car and chatted with everyone in the car about what we had seen. We had plenty of time to chat because the drunk was in the restroom for a long time.

When the drunk finally came out of the restroom, he sauntered to his Chrysler Cordoba, opened the door, and climbed in. But he kept one foot on the ground. The officer explained to us that he needed to have the guy in his car with the door closed and the keys in the ignition before he could arrest him. We were parked behind a partition, but the culprit could easily have seen us had he bothered to look our way (and had his perception not been impaired).

The guy leaned back in the driver’s seat and sat with his cowboy boot on the ground. He stayed that way for a long time. Then he reached behind the driver’s seat, pulled out a bottle of booze, took a chug from it, and put it back. But he still sat there reclining with his foot on the ground and without the keys in the ignition. We wondered how long this could go on.

Then suddenly (and quite rapidly for an impaired guy), the drunk had his door closed and his car was moving. He slowly pulled his car into the parking area of the gas station. The officer immediately maneuvered right up behind him and turned on his overhead lights. The driver took no notice of this. He slowly drove to the lot entrance that opened onto Main and slowly made a left turn across two busy lanes of traffic, causing cars in both lanes to screech to a halt. He was only going five or six miles per hour. The officer followed him as he slowly forced his way into southbound traffic, seemingly oblivious to the vehicles he was forcing to stop.

By this time, the officer had turned on his sirens. But the drunk apparently took no notice of this for about a block or so. He just moseyed down the road like nothing was wrong. Finally he saw the police cruiser on his tail. He took about half a block to slowly pull into the right lane, and then he finally turned into a decrepit establishment that had once been a gas station, and came to a stop. The officer pulled up so that my window was right next to the drunk driver’s window. Another police cruiser had joined by this time. He pulled up behind the drunk to block any escape.

I got a close up view of the officer performing his first sobriety check: finding the driver’s license. The drunk pulled out his wallet and leafed through the cards, finally finding his license on the seventh time that he encountered it. Then our cowboy booted friend was asked to step out of his car. They had him stand on a spot, stretch out his arms, close his eyes, and then try to touch his nose with each index finger, one hand at a time. He did OK at that. Then they had him walk toe-to-heel straight down a line on the pavement. He didn’t do too badly at that, but when it came time for him to pivot and return on the same line, he nearly went down. He regained his balance, but then started off in another direction on some imaginary line that none of the rest of us could see. At this point, the drunk was handcuffed and put into the rear seat of the second cruiser. They didn’t have on board breathalyzer tests back then, so they had to take him to the police station. They asked us to come along. I continued to ride in the cruiser.

Upon arriving at the police station, the four of us were taken to separate rooms and asked to write on official forms everything we could remember of the incident. This took a long time. We then were requested to swear before an official that our affidavits were truthful, which we all did. This whole incident took a couple of unplanned hours out of our schedule. But when we found out that the drunk’s destination had been Ogden, some 40 miles distant from Logan, we were glad we had done it. The whole thing was such a unique experience, that I went home and wrote about it in my journal.

One day in late autumn I received a subpoena to appear and testify in court in Logan. Within a couple of days, I had spoken on the phone with a prosecutor. He explained that the gentleman that we had gotten arrested for DUI had pleaded innocent and his case was going to trial.

On a rainy day in November my friends and I drove up to Logan. I brought my journal with me. We first met with the prosecutor. He explained to us that he could only say certain things to us in order to protect the rights of the accused, but he described what was about to happen. He said that potential jury members were seated in one courtroom, and that a pretrial hearing was underway in another courtroom. The defendant’s attorney was trying to have some evidence suppressed.

We sat in the hallway outside of the courtroom along with the two police officers that had been involved with the arrest. We were instructed to say nothing to each other about the case. One of the officers was invited into the courtroom. He was in there for about five minutes. He came out and said that the judge wanted one of us. It didn’t matter to him which one. Since I had my journal, I was nominated.

I was sworn in and seated on the witness stand. I could see the accused sitting there looking like he had a bad hangover. His wife was with him. The judge explained what was going on and then said that the defense attorney had some questions he wanted to ask. He was a very articulate guy and asked a number of very pointed questions. It was rather obvious that he was trying to trip me up in some way. I answered as honestly and straightforwardly as I knew how. I could soon tell that the attorney was getting frustrated with me, because I was apparently ruining his defense.

The attorney finally asked in exasperation how I could be so sure of the events surrounding his client’s arrest. I explained that I had my journal with me, in which I had recorded the events of that day. The judge asked if he could see my journal, so I handed it to him. He opened it to the marked page, leafed through a few pages before and after the page, and then started reading. He soon got the most comical look on his face, but only said that it was obvious that my journal was recorded as per my testimony.

Following this, I was asked no further questions, but they kept me on the stand for a few minutes while a flurry of discussion went back and forth between the defense, the prosecution, and the judge. Finally, the defense attorney asked permission to address the court. He then said that his client had decided to change his plea to guilty. The judge smiled at me, thanked me for my time, and dismissed me.

After the hearing, we again met with the prosecutor. He was circumspect, but it was impossible for him to keep from showing that he was rather tickled with the way things had turned out. He then explained to us that the defendant had two prior DUI convictions, and that between the August arrest and this hearing, he had again been pulled over for DUI in Logan Canyon. I never did find out how the drunk was sentenced, but I was happy to have been a part of his conviction.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences are No Panacea

“Driving drunk is no different than shooting a firearm into a crowded room. The bullet might hit someone, or it might not. The only thing that stops it from being a homicide is dumb luck.” —Bob Lonsberry

On January 28, 2000, a young mother named Michelle Bradley was killed and her 12-year-old daughter was injured in West Valley City at the hands of Robert J. VanDyke (see D-News article). VanDyke, was driving drunk when his vehicle crossed into the Bradley’s lane of travel and collided with their vehicle. Despite numerous instances of being charged with DUI over the previous 15 years, up to that time VanDyke had spent less than 7½ cumulative hours in jail. He was out on bail for yet another DUI when he killed Michelle Bradley.

This time VanDyke could not escape doing actual prison time. As part of his sentencing, he wrote a letter of apology to the family of Michelle Bradley, saying, “I am committed to try with all my heart not to drink again.” After only five years in jail for this killing, VanDyke was pulled over for drunk driving yet again about a year and a half into his parole. Now he finds his bail increased to $100,000. It seems that the court was not amused with his lawyer’s excuse that he could not get a ride to the hearing, although, he had 23 days to make necessary arrangements (see SL-Trib article, D-News article).

Bob Lonsberry suggests that Utah’s treatment of drunk driving does not reflect the seriousness of the offense. He argues that we can clear this up easily by requiring a mandatory sentence of one year in the county jail on the first DUI offense, with no possibility of getting out early or commuting any of the sentence to community service. He further prescribes a mandatory 10-year sentence in the state penitentiary for the second offence. Yes, this will wreak havoc on the offender’s personal life and will harshly impact the innocents connected to the offender. But if the message gets out that driving under the influence even once will seriously and permanently mess up your life, Lonsberry contends, people will be much less likely to engage in that behavior.

That sounds like a great solution. But this Standard Examiner editorial points out some problems with harsh mandatory sentencing that simply cannot be ignored. The editorial focuses on the excessively repugnant crime of child sexual abuse, but many of the editors’ points apply to DUI and other serious crimes as well.

In 1983 Utah passed a mandatory sentencing law for predatory pedophiles. But the law was repealed in 1995 because “the minimum-mandatory sentences allowed prosecutors to force defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges.” Also, our politicians apparently feel that Utah’s taxpayers are about tapped out on what they are willing to pay for corrections. Thus, minimum-mandatory sentences result in overcrowding and moving criminals to less expensive county facilities, where they mingle with and train less serious offenders.

For those of you that are thinking that we should remove prosecutors’ ability to plea bargain in certain types of cases, you may want to actually do some research into our justice system and find out what works and what doesn’t. Consider, for example, this interview with a criminal court judge in Houston. He says, “If we had an ideal situation, where every case that came in was tried before a jury who speaks for our community, we would be sending these cases for 10 years down the road to be tried. There just aren't enough courts to try these cases before a jury because the of number of cases.” It is argued that plea bargains for the most part help achieve outcomes that would be likely with a full-blown jury trial, but at a substantially lower cost to the taxpayers.

In actuality, very few cases end up going to trial. The vast majority of cases are resolved via plea bargain. The cases that do go to trial end up being the input data for modeling plea bargains. The interview referenced above addresses concerns about innocent people accepting plea bargains and mistakes that can (and do) occur in the bargaining process. The judge admits that the public is generally suspicious of plea bargains, but he also suggests that plea bargains are a decent tool for achieving a level of justice that is generally acceptable to the community.

The trouble occurs when we see an obvious problem. Mr. VanDyke should have been dealt with much more aggressively during his 15 years of DUIs prior to Jan. 28, 2000, whether this meant treatment, incarceration, or both. Had that occurred, Mrs. Bradley may be alive today. And was justice served when VanDyke spent only five years in jail for taking the life of this innocent young mother?

Cases like this cause us to demand harsher punishment. But the question then arises as to whether we are actually willing to pay for this harsher punishment. Corrections is severely under budgeted in Utah, and legislators are scrambling to figure out how to begin to remedy the problem when there are so many other demands for taxpayer dollars. Legislating harsher sentences without budgeting for the increased expense is too much like the way Congress increases discretionary spending without allotting actual revenues to cover the increased expenditure.

We want justice served, but at what price? We all want predatory pedophiles and dangerous drunk drivers put where they can’t harm innocents. But what is actually the best way to accomplish this at a cost taxpayers are willing to bear? As we can see, this issue is more complex than it appears on the surface.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Endless Campaign

According to Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, we have McCain-Feingold to thank for the current monstrously long presidential campaign cycle (see here). No good deed goes unpunished and every government action carries with it unintended consequences.

Campaign finance reformers wanted to get “big money” out of national politics (and create a stronger incumbency protection system at the same time — but that’s another story). So they implemented a cap on personal campaign contributions that currently stands at $2,300. This means that candidates have to get money from a very broad base of small time contributors instead of from a few well heeled contributors. (Unless you have enough personal wealth to fund much of your own campaign.)

But it takes a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of expense to pull together enough small chunks of contributions to run an effective campaign. The cost of fundraising under this paradigm has gone through the roof. The unintended side effect of campaign finance reform, claims Henninger, is that candidates must start very early and campaign in constant sales pitch mode.

So you end up with bundlers that gather together loads of $2,300 contributions and turn them over to campaigns. Only, some of those contributions end up coming from dubious sources, as was the case with bundler Norman Hsu. And because some change in affairs could “turn a commitment [made] way back when into an embarrassment 14 months later,” you end up with candidates that campaign “more or less about nothing.” They engage in major arguments about issues that are relatively unimportant and avoid solid commitments to anything substantive.

The media and the pollsters love this lengthened campaign season. But already, with almost 11 months to go, pollsters are finding decreasing levels of voter interest in the candidates. It’s campaign fatigue. Voters feel about the campaign the way shoppers feel about the store downtown that has been holding a going out of business sale for the last two years. “The result,” Henninger observes, could be that “Mike Huckabee may win Iowa in large part because he gives people a good laugh.”

The obvious solution is to realize that our well intentioned campaign finance reform law is a failure, and scrap it. Let any American contribute any amount they want to any campaign they want, but require that all contributions be immediately posted publicly. Allow full transparency so that everyone can see who is supporting whom. This is more like the American way.

Another alternative would be to go with the heavy hand of the all-wise government approach. Put limits on campaign spending and legally limit campaign activities to a certain period of time prior to the election. Of course, this approach assumes that voters can’t be trusted to figure out what candidates are up to. It would only invite more Hsu-like corruption and lawyers would get rich wrangling over the definition of campaign activity.

The answer does not lie in more campaign restrictions. Rather, more openness is needed. Dumping the $2,300 contribution cap in favor of contribution transparency would shorten campaign cycles. Would this system be problem free? Nope. No system would be. But it would be better than what we have today, and it would be better than more heavy handed government control.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Farming for Taxpayer Dollars

“So what is it about farm bills that turns Republicans into socialists and Democrats into defenders of welfare for the rich?” —WSJ Editorial Board (see article)

The last time the GOP controlled Congress passed a farm bill — five years ago — it was nothing more than a debacle of socialist policy that favored the wealthy over the middle and lower class. Now a Democratically controlled Congress is poised to pull the same trick, as they prepare to pass a bloated $290 billion bill that will funnel loads of cash to the likes of 562 residents of Manhattan and two university marching bands.

The WSJ Editors note, “About 65 cents of every farm payment dollar goes to the wealthiest 10% of farmers.” But then they also note that many of these “farmers” aren’t farmers at all. Some of them own farms, but the subsidies they receive actually drive up rent for their tenants that do the farming.

President Bush, imbued with the power of a lame duck president with an opposition party Congress, has promised to veto the bill. Some, including members of Congress that stand to score a combined total of $6 million in subsidies from the bill, are calling the promised veto “immoral.” Perhaps they should save their moralizing for the guy in the mirror.

Our semi-decadal farm bills came about as a way to help the little guy farmer make ends meet. But these subsidies did not stop market forces. Automation and modernization of agriculture have increased yield and decreased need for manual labor. What started out as transfer payments to small-time farmers has turned into taxpayer funding of the wealthy. And it’s big business on the political end. That’s why Congress, regardless of which party is in control, can’t bring itself to significantly reduce or eliminate these subsidies. And this Congress, in particular, seems to pride itself in repeatedly passing useless bills that cannot survive a presidential veto.

Maybe an unpopular lame duck president with an opposition party controlling Congress isn’t all that bad.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mitt Romney Gets Important Conservative Endorsement

Both major political parties consist of coalitions that continually strain against each other within the party. But they agree on enough issues to create viable parties. The GOP consists of what is broadly defined as a conservative coalition. But there are different brands of conservatives. They agree on some matters and disagree on others.

The Editors of the National Review, a renowned conservative publication, note that any viable GOP candidate must be able to keep the conservative coalition together (see here). They suggest that the best thing to do is to look at which candidates could accomplish that and then determine which of those has the best chance of winning the general election.

In the NRO Editors’ estimation, only three candidates would not significantly divide the conservative coalition: John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. While each of the others has some highly desirable traits, the NRO Editors judge that any of them would divide the coalition. The most viable of the three that are thought to be able to maintain party cohesiveness, the editors contend, is Mitt Romney. They have, accordingly, endorsed Romney for president.

The case the NRO Editors make for Romney is that he is “a full-spectrum conservative: a supporter of free-market economics and limited government, moral causes such as the right to life and the preservation of marriage, and a foreign policy based on the national interest.” He is highly competent; an important trait, especially at a time when it is so starkly absent in the current administration. He has more executive experience than McCain and Thompson combined. He’s the only candidate that has some executive success dealing “with the cutting edge of social liberalism.”

Romney doesn’t get a pass on his drawbacks, but the NRO Editors think he’s the best the GOP has to pick from. They note that “Romney has been plagued by the sense that his is a passionless, paint-by-the-numbers conservatism.” They call on him to let his passion shine through more often. Although his foreign policy experience isn’t as great as McCain’s or Thompson’s, his positions are substantially similar.

Regarding Romney’s position changes on conservative issues, the Editors say, “Whatever the process by which he got to where he is on marriage, judges, and life, we’re glad he is now on our side — and we trust him to stay there.” They admit that Romney will still have to convince others of his sincerity. They also admit that other “fine conservatives” have come to a different conclusion on whom to support for president.

The NRO Editors exhibit their respect for Romney when they write, “Romney is an exemplary family man and a patriot whose character matches the high office to which he aspires.” Comparing Romney with the current occupant of the White House, they say, “More than the other primary candidates, Romney has President Bush’s virtues and avoids his flaws. His moral positions, and his instincts on taxes and foreign policy, are the same. But he is less inclined to federal activism, less tolerant of overspending, better able to defend conservative positions in debate, and more likely to demand performance from his subordinates.”

With a little more than a month and a half until I vote in the primary elections, I am yet uncommitted to any candidate. I find admirable qualities in each of them. I also find things I don’t like about each of them. There is also the question of whether to vote for the most likely to win, or to rather vote to send a message.

For example, Kimberley Strassel of the WSJ Editorial Board, writes in this article about why Ron Paul is drawing the most enthusiastic supporters of any GOP hopeful. They don’t constitute enough of a force for him to be a viable front runner, but Strassel says that the other candidates “shouldn't dismiss the passion he's tapped.” She writes, “If Mr. Paul has shown anything, it's that many conservative voters continue to doubt there's anything "heroic" or "compassionate" in a ballooning government that sucks up their dollars to aid a dysfunctional state.”

While the NRO Editors find Romney a strong fiscal conservative, he seems much more likely to be another Republican that only seeks to grow the federal leviathan at a slower rate than would a Democrat. The NRO endorsement of Romney demonstrates a pragmatic choice. That is, they assume, as did Democrats with John Kerry in 2004, that though not terribly thrilling, Romney is the best chance the GOP has of winning the White House in 2008. But then there’s the argument that the GOP needs a wakeup call, and that losing the White House next year wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if it helped the party regain its proper bearing. I am equally dubious of both of these approaches.

It may be helpful to note that Ronald Reagan was seen by many in 1980 to be the GOP candidate of convenience. He didn’t inspire a lot of people to begin with. And many dismissed those he did inspire as being under the thrall of theatrics. None of the GOP candidates inspire a lot of passion in me at present. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. Perhaps national politics would work better if it weren’t like a personality cult. As for now, I’m keeping my options open.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Accepting Apology

Mike Huckabee has made a lot of news with his glib anti-Mormon comment uttered in an interview that is yet to be published this upcoming weekend (see here). When Huckabee was asked about his thoughts on Mormonism, he said that he didn’t know much about it, but then added the dig, “Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

On his radio show yesterday and again today, Michael Medved dismissed Huckabee’s comment as simply an innocent gaffe that should be chalked up to a low-budget inexperienced campaign. I beg to differ with Medved. Huckabee knew what he was saying when he said it; he simply miscalculated the flack he would catch for it. Let me explain.

Gov. Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister. He is fully aware of the regular anti-Mormon statements, workshops, books, etc. that are promoted through Evangelical Christian congregations. He is fully aware of the standard skewed anti-Mormon arguments that are pushed through these groups. One such argument is the one that he let slip from his mouth during the interview. It is something that is repeated in Evangelical circles to quickly create a sense of revulsion and fear of Mormons and Mormon doctrine. I doubt Medved would be so charitable had an Islamic Imam casually dropped an anti-Jewish slur from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The two cases are precisely analogous.

Gov. Huckabee knew that his quick anti-Mormon comment was a code that would be understood by millions of Evangelicals. This same kind of soft-pedaled smear tactic has been employed against political candidates of many stripes, as their opponents have tried to implicate them with skewed stereotypes based on their group affiliation. You can still get away with that kind of thing, but it’s getting a lot harder. You have to limit such utterances to audiences that will appreciate them, and even that is getting harder. Modern media has eyes and ears everywhere, and anything a candidate says or does can be immediately published on the Internet.

Huckabee’s interview was not with an Evangelical publication. It wasn’t even with a regional Bible belt publication. It was with a national publication, so it quickly brought condemnation. Huckabee apparently didn’t understand that this type of soft smear based on atavisms is no longer broadly tolerated. While Michael Medved thinks this simply means that Huckabee’s campaign is callow, it reveals a lot about this man that would be president.

Yesterday following the GOP presidential debate in Iowa, Huckabee did something else that tells us a lot about himself. He personally apologized to Mitt Romney for how the anti-Mormon comment is being received (see here). Nobody knows for sure what Huckabee said to Romney other than Gov. Huckabee and Gov. Romney. When asked about it, Gov. Huckabee said, “I said, 'I would never try, ever to try to somehow pick out some point of your faith and make it an issue,' and I wouldn't.” But he did.

Huckabee has also suggested that the interviewer baited him into making the statement and that he assumed the statement would never make it into print. That’s a mark of naivety. The interviewer said that he was surprised when Huckabee casually dropped the anti-Mormon barb as an unbidden addendum to a boilerplate answer.

Some have suggested that Huckabee’s apology wasn’t so much an apology as it was sorrow for getting caught doing something that is now causing him grief. If you parse Gov. Huckabee’s words to the media about the apology, it would certainly seem that way. But we don’t know what he actually said to Gov. Romney. Some (including Bob Lonsberry on his radio show this morning) have suggested that Romney should not accept the apology. Of course, Romney has already graciously done so.

I can understand why some of these folks are upset. Gov. Huckabee didn’t just malign Mitt Romney; he maligned the LDS faith, and by extension, everyone that believes in the LDS faith. But for LDS people that seethe with resentment for Gov. Huckabee’s bigotry, let’s take a quick review of something the Bible tells us.

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Perhaps Gov. Huckabee hasn’t handled his apology in the way we’d like. And perhaps he’s not sincere. But I don’t think the Savior put those kinds of qualifiers on his commandment to forgive. I believe the implication is that anyone that would repeatedly apologize and then re-offend is somewhat less than sincere. So even if you question Gov. Huckabee’s sincerity, the requirement on the Christian to forgive is clear.

Forgiving doesn’t mean that you don’t recognize the action for what it was or that you don’t consider character and actions when making voting decisions. It means you charitably harbor no ill will in your heart for the offender, and that you in fact wish his good — ultimately, his eternal good.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Greenspan's Theory on the Bursting Bubbles

Former Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, gives his take on the bursting of the housing bubble in this WSJ article. The popped bubble, he contends, is much less a result of domestic policies than of a major shift in how domestic economies interface with the global economy. With the clarity hindsight provides, Greenspan admits that some of his assumptions that governed his actions as Fed Chairman were faulty.

During his long tenure at the Fed, Greenspan’s lack of clarity was one of his hallmarks. While he is uncharacteristically clear in the WSJ article, he still muddles around and more or less says that his view amounts to an educated guess.

Following the collapse of communism, Greenspan contends, capitalistic fervor produced dramatic gains in real GDP in many developing nations. But newly monied people in these societies still had inadequate outlets for spending, so they saved and invested. With a larger supply of investment money, the cost of risk became “underpriced.” This fueled “market euphoria” throughout the world. Greenspan writes:

“The crisis was thus an accident waiting to happen. If it had not been triggered by the mispricing of securitized subprime mortgages, it would have been produced by eruptions in some other market. As I have noted elsewhere, history has not dealt kindly with protracted periods of low risk premiums.”

Greenspan says that based on his many years of experience, he has “reluctantly concluded that bubbles cannot be safely defused by monetary policy or other policy initiatives before the speculative fever breaks on its own.” That is, central banks and governments are largely powerless to halt price bubble situations. Greenspan doesn’t discuss whether central banks and governments can or ought to play a role in trying to provide a soft landing when a price bubble does burst.

In his article, Greenspan resigns himself to the fact that central banks and governments have far less control over their economies than used to be the case. He writes, “More generally, global forces, combined with lower international trade barriers, have diminished the scope of national governments to affect the paths of their economies.”

Mainly, it appears that the pricing of long-term debt instruments has shifted to the global economy. While that shift has been underway for decades, it appears that the scales finally tipped only recently. But this was not immediately clear, so the Fed continued making decisions based on the way things used to be. Central banks, Greenspan seems happy to report, still substantially control short-term debt instruments, which allows them to contain inflationary pressures.

So, following the collapse of communism, there was a lot of economic growth worldwide due to implementation of capitalism where it had previously been suppressed. This temporarily caused an over abundance of investment capital, which decreased the cost of risk, since investment money was easier to get. Markets throughout the world responded by engaging in more speculative behavior, since the immediate cost of such behavior was cheaper than it had been. But eventually, markets caught up. Monied people in developing areas began to have opportunities to use their money more efficiently than in low-return investments. So the cost of risk adjusted to a more appropriate value. Speculative activities suddenly became more expensive, causing a rapid decline in these activities. The bubble burst. The highly speculative subprime mortgage industry happened to draw the short straw, so it took the brunt of the pain from the adjustment of the cost of risk. At least, that’s what I understand Greenspan to be saying.

Central banks have lost a significant portion of their power. Long-term instruments are now naturally priced according to market signals and pressures. That is a good thing. No group of people, no matter how intelligent and experienced they may be, can possibly hope to manage pricing as well as a broad-based self-organizing market. Can the day be far distant when central banks can no longer effectively control short-term instruments so that they too are pegged to market forces?

F.A. Hayek argued “that the market economy might well be better able to develop its potentialities if government monopoly of money were abolished” (The Fatal Conceit, p. 104). While we are used to our current monetary system, it is not necessarily a good system. Many would argue that the Fed causes more problems than it’s worth. Hayek asserts, “The history of government management of money has, except for a few short happy periods, been one of incessant fraud and deception. In this respect, governments have proved far more immoral than any private agency supplying distinct kinds of money in competition possibly could have been” (pp. 103-104).

At any rate, it seems that pricing bubbles are uncontrollable. The only way for them to stop is for them to burst of their own accord, which necessarily results in pain. People managing money policy are powerless to do anything about this. They can sit in their mahogany paneled conference rooms and issue mystical edicts on short-term interest rates. But they ultimately cannot control the market.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Are U.S. Mormons Not Full-Fledged Americans?

Tom at KVNU’s For The People posted a link to video clip of Noah Feldman’s keynote address at the Mormonism & American Politics conference at Princeton. The conference was held Nov. 9-10. Feldman is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. He specializes in “issues at the intersection of religion and politics.” At 37 years of age, he is already highly accomplished. His brilliance shows on the video clip.

It should be noted that Feldman is no stranger to controversy. One of his claims to fame is that he advised on writing the Iraq Constitution. Another interesting element is that he is an advisor to the Council on Foreign Relations, which is regularly maligned by certain conservative segments — particularly those that dabble in conspiracy theories.

The aforementioned conference included addresses by Richard Bushman, Jan Schipps, and many other respected experts in the field of politics, religion, and Mormonism in particular. Feldman’s keynote address at the conference was titled, “Persecution and the Art of Secrecy: An Interpretation of the Mormon Encounter with American Politics.” I think Feldman’s discussion is interesting, particularly in light of Mitt Romney’s Faith In America speech last week.

Feldman obviously has a somewhat different point of view than me. He runs through Mitt Romney’s list of qualifications and says that all of the other GOP candidates, by comparison, are “jokers.” Romney, contends Feldman, “is the perfect candidate” for the GOP at this time. In so many words, Feldman suggests that Romney’s religion is the only thing that could logically prevent him from winning the GOP nomination.

I believe that this analysis is flawed and that there are perfectly valid reasons not directly related to religion for preferring another candidate to Romney. Many conservative pundits have gone out of their way to discuss these in detail. While Feldman’s line of argument is tainted by the supposition that religion could be the only rational disqualifier for Romney, I’m not sure that it necessarily means that Feldman’s conclusions are substantially incorrect.

Feldman notes that Latter-Day Saints have been working for more than a century to become respected players in the mainstream of American politics. He then suggests that Romney’s candidacy means something different for Latter-Day Saints than any other candidate’s candidacy means to any other group.

If Romney with all of his magnificent qualifications cannot win the GOP nomination among a field of much less qualified candidates, contends Feldman, it will essentially mean that Latter-Day Saints are not considered full-fledged Americans. It would mean that one of the most patriotic, politically involved, upstanding groups of people in the US “is not welcome into the elite circles of American politics” based solely on specific elements of religious belief. It would mean that the US in fact has an unwritten religious test for the presidency — not a test formally implemented by the government, which would be unconstitutional, but a nonetheless very real religious test.

Despite what I believe to be a faulty assumption, I cannot decide whether Feldman is pushing his argument too far, or has rather arrived at an accurate assessment anyway. Although I wish I could provide an objective analysis, I must admit that I am not able to be fully objective in this matter, since I necessarily see it from my own religious-political perspective. Even if Feldman’s assumption is faulty, it is possible that enough people will perceive a Romney loss as Feldman suggests, so that the perception will become reality.

Feldman says that our Founders “would be appalled” at what is currently going on with the state of religion and politics in the US. I tend to agree with him there. Feldman is one smart guy, but I think the dust will have to settle after the primaries before it becomes clear whether he is correct or not. If he is correct, it will mean that for the time being, you may not be considered a valid presidential candidate unless you (at least on the surface) ascribe to a certain set of religious beliefs. It would mean that you don’t necessarily have to follow those beliefs (Like, hey, what’s a little adultery or bearing false witness between friends?), but you do have to belong to an organization that at least purports to teach them. By extension, it would mean that not only are Mormons not full-fledged Americans, but anyone else that fails to pass the unwritten religious test is also not quite as equal as are other Americans.

I could certainly be wrong, but my personal analysis suggests that Romney isn’t going to win the GOP nomination. He got a bump in the polls from his speech, but there are other factors that suggest he won’t be on top of the GOP heap by the end of February. So we should soon be able to get some idea of whether Feldman is right or not. For the sake of the nation, I hope Feldman is wrong.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Seeing Things Differently

Each day that I have left the workplace of my current employer, the vehicle I’ve been in has turned east toward the mountain range. I have seen that range in practically every condition: clear sunlight, moonlight, overcast, and in every season of the year. I have gotten quite used to what the mountains look like.

Several weeks ago as the vehicle I was in turned east, the mountain range looked different. It wasn’t just a little bit different. It looked a lot different. One mountain in the range suddenly appeared almost white, and appeared to have a huge split running from top to bottom. I wondered if something cataclysmic had occurred, yet no one around me seemed to give it the slightest notice.

It was a cloudy day. Normally I wouldn’t have paid much attention, but this vision seemed so out of the ordinary that it held my rapt attention. Then the clouds shifted. Over the space of a few seconds, the white mountain, which had seemed so drastically different, slowly faded back into the blue-grey background to look just the same way I have seen it many times before.

It was then that I realized that it had all been a trick of light. At the moment that I had been looking at the mountain range, an opening in the clouds permitted a clear shaft of sunlight to penetrate in such a way that this one mountain was highlighted against all of the surrounding hills. None of the sunlight spilled over to the surrounding hills, so that this one hill was dramatically emphasized.

After the clouds shifted to obscure the sunlight, it became clear to me that the split I had seen was merely a geological feature that looked like a broad, dark stripe running up the western face of the mountain. It had been there every time I had looked at the mountain range. I had never noticed it before.

We get used to our surroundings. The human mind tends to rapidly classify what its senses perceive so that the vast majority of perceptions are relegated to low priority. Thus we pay little attention to such things. Developers working on artificial intelligence find this factor one of the most difficult elements to simulate using technology. Our minds don’t generally forget that this stuff is there, but we don’t expend much mental resources on it.

Things perceived to be of lower priority can rapidly be raised to higher priority if conditions seem to warrant such. That is what happened to me the day I saw the one mountain to which I had never previously paid attention. On a regular basis we choose to ignore things, but in most instances our minds do this for us without any conscious effort on our part.

While the logic behind subconscious prioritization is difficult to figure out, it is a merciful method of resource management. If we had to be omni-aware of every detail about us continually, we’d go nuts. Automatic prioritization helps us cope with life.

As a parent, I find that my awareness of my children’s pursuits, thoughts, and needs works a lot like this. There is a lot of this stuff of which I am quite aware. There is more of which I am marginally aware. And there is a lot that flies under my radar. I don’t pay much attention to it unless something happens to raise its priority level.

My middle child is truly a middle child, with the next siblings four years and three years away. He loves his siblings, but he doesn’t fit well with them. The two older children are close to each other. They are teenagers and are in a world of their own. They are light years away from their younger brother. The two younger children are close to each other. They often enjoy doing things with their older brother, but he has to descend to their level. They can’t come up to his. It has been clear for years that my middle child feels like the odd man out. And he acts that way too.

A few weeks ago, for some reason I saw my middle son differently, much the same way I one day saw the mountain differently. He wasn’t different, but my perception of him changed in such a way that I changed my behavior. I used to read to his older siblings when they were younger. They eventually became avid readers and began pursuing their own reading projects. But they still often mention the fondness they have in their hearts for the years that I read to them. Often I read to them works of Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others. I have come to realize that the time spent together was at least as important as any information that was derived from the reading.

So a few weeks ago I pulled out A Wrinkle In Time and invited my middle child to sit down and listen to me read. Actually, I tried to include my younger children as well. My youngest didn’t take to it very well. My #4 child sort of enjoyed it, but became less interested as time went on. But my middle child has very much enjoyed our reading together. I have had to rearrange my schedule to make our reading sessions a priority. We are now on the cusp of finishing A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in L’Engle’s Kairos series. We may next move to the Chronicles of Narnia or the Hobbit.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I can only hope that in years to come, both my son and I will cherish our shared reading sessions.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Social Conservatives Provide the Edge

The constant bashing of social conservatives from the Left is a tiresome saw. This type of rhetoric suggests that social conservatism has no place in American politics. But the Left has only its own excesses to blame for the rise of social conservatism as a political force.

This NRO interview by Kathryn Jean Lopez of Mark Stricherz is fascinating. Social conservatives didn’t suddenly spring up from nowhere. They have always been an important constituency in America. Critics love to claim that they are little more than the racists of the Old South with a new mask, but in fact, social conservatives were responsible for the demise of the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Until fairly recent history, social conservatives were fairly well spread between both major political parties. But that changed beginning in 1969 when a new coalition that included feminist activists began to take control of the Democratic Party’s presidential wing. Stricherz says, “If the national parties in the late 1960s and early ‘70s had stayed the same, feminists likely would have aligned with the Republican party, which seemed to be their natural home.”

But “a group of New Politics leaders used a reform commission, which was chaired by Senator George McGovern, to hijack the national party.” The group was able to get the delegate selection process changed to wrench power away from party bosses. One of the provisions they enacted was to require that delegations be made up 50-50 of males and females. The newly formed National Women’s Political Caucus “told their members to run as Democratic delegates.”

As radical feminists gained power in Democratic Party presidential politics, they made it clear that their number one issue was “the legalization of abortion.” They proved that they expected “the party to muzzle those who disagreed with them.” Marginalized social conservatives started fleeing the party in droves over the next few years. Not only did the hard uncompromising stance of abortion advocates turn the Democratic Party more to the left, the incoming social conservatives turned the Republican Party more to the right. This situation both necessitated and enabled the formation of political power groups based specifically on social conservatism.

Today it is possible to vie for the GOP presidential nomination with something less than a pro-life stance. However, it is not possible to seriously seek the Democratic presidential nomination without subscribing to unrestricted abortion on demand. Stricherz explains why this is bad for Democrats. Like it or not, there are a lot of socially conservative American voters, even in the Democratic Party. But when it comes to presidential elections, most of these people end up voting for the candidate that is most socially conservative.

This, claims Stricherz, is why Democrats have lost six out of the past nine presidential elections, and why “only one Democratic candidate” during that time “has received more than half of the popular vote.” He suggests that there can be bigger issues that trump the candidates’ social stances, such as having a foreign war going down the tubes. But in the absence of such issues, the most socially conservative candidate has the edge.

If both parties nominate social liberals, the GOP’s edge in the presidential election will vanish. Stricherz says that it is only a matter of time before the current power brokers in Democratic presidential politics are toppled by another power group. It’s happened time after time, and it will happen again. “The obvious candidate,” says Stricherz “is Hispanic Catholics.” But before they can rise to the occasion they must “develop a leadership class, a political elite of lawyers and businessmen.”

Hispanic Catholics are far more socially conservative than the current Democratic power brokers. We may yet see the day that the Democrats will nominate a socially conservative presidential candidate. If both parties had pro-life candidates, contends Stricherz, the national debate would move from “whether unborn infants deserve legal protection” to “which protections should be enacted and whether government should spend money to help save unborn children and their mothers.”

Republicans would lose their edge in presidential elections. The fit for social conservatives in the GOP hasn’t been that comfortable for any of the party’s factions. If the Democratic Party were to become less hostile to social conservatives, some would no longer feel bound to the GOP and would wander over to the Democrats. Some groups that are now in the Democratic Party might wander to the other side as well. Once again, the entire face of American politics would change. I wonder if this would result in less inter-party hostility.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Surge and Fall of GOP Presidential Candidates

The media is making a huge deal out of Mike Huckabee’s surge in Iowa, where recent polls have him usurping the lead Mitt Romney has maintained for months. The spin is that Romney’s support is slipping because Protestant leaning Iowans will as a matter of faith support Huckabee, an erstwhile Baptist minister, over Romney, an erstwhile Mormon bishop and stake president.

While I do not doubt that the religions of these two men play some role in how Iowans are choosing how they will vote in next month’s caucuses, I do not believe that this is the most significant factor. It makes for salacious press, but there’s a bigger, more mundane story to be told.

Romney chose early on to make Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — the early primary states — the focus of his campaign. This was arguably a very risky approach. This used to be the standard model to follow. Lesser known candidates could get some recognition and bounce out of good performances in early primary states. But that worked well when the primary cycle was drawn out over many months. People in later primary states often waited to make up their minds or even pay attention to the race until they saw how the early primaries went. Candidates that performed well in early primaries were able to raise money that allowed them to campaign in the next round of states.

In next year’s highly compressed primary season, it is questionable how well this approach will work. There simply isn’t much time to raise funds and build good campaigns in other states between the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and Giga-Tuesday (or whatever they’re now calling it) on February 5. Rudy Giuliani is betting that good performance in January is not essential to good performance in February. His efforts in early primary states have been meager. He has spent most of his capital in the big states that will be voting on February 5. This too is a gamble. How well this will work is anybody’s guess.

Romney has spent more money than any other GOP candidate so far. And he has spent much of it in the early primary states. His campaign has argued all along that he is low in the polls because people don’t know who he is. By now Iowans know Romney as well as they’re going to. He isn’t falling in the polls. He just hit a plateau a few weeks ago and he is holding steady. Huckabee’s surging support has come from the vast numbers of heretofore uncommitted Iowans. What this means is that Iowans know Romney, but a lot of them want something different.

As for national polls, Romney has been holding steady for a long time now. His campaign has been betting that he would surge dramatically following the early primaries. While this might have been a fool’s hope to begin with, even that hope will vanish if Romney doesn’t perform well in those early primaries. Despite his modest standing in the polls, Romney has made lots of news because he has a strong campaign machine that knows how to cater to (sometimes lazy) reporters.

Many conservatives have long suggested that Giuliani’s lead would diminish as people got closer to actually voting. The trend seems to be going that way. Fred Thompson isn’t doing any better than he was when he was still unannounced. John McCain has gone through ups and downs, but his polling numbers are also pretty much in a holding pattern. The lower tier candidates are muddling around in the single digits.

Ron Paul has raised eyebrows with his fundraising, but he seems incapable of drawing much support from likely GOP primary voters. There is some truth to his supporters’ claims that the polls are skewed because much of Paul’s support is coming from people newly registering as Republicans to vote for him, so that they are underrepresented in polling that focuses on traditional GOP primary voters. But even correcting for this would not significantly raise Paul in the polls. His support is deep, but not broad. And broad support is what will be needed to prevail in next year’s GOP primaries.

Huckabee has surged in polls nationwide, despite the fact that his fundraising and spending has been only a fraction of what other “top-tier” candidates have raised and spent. One critic said that Huckabee’s TV spots look like they were filmed with the family video camera in somebody’s garage. And his surge is not limited to religious folks. To me, Huckabee’s policies seem like a strange mixture of conservatism, classical liberalism, populism and socialism. But Huckabee has something going for him that Romney never seems have captured and that Giuliani seems to have somewhat lost.

Whatever his policies, Mike Huckabee comes across as hopeful and positive. He performs well in debates and in public appearances. People come away from such experiences with a generally good feeling about him. For all of his magnificent assets, Romney does not seem to be able to accomplish this feat. Giuliani sometimes seems to exude positiveness, but he has seemed much less able to do so in recent weeks as he has engaged in a round of Mitt bashing. Romney goaded Giuliani into this, and Giuliani reacted. Some people have been turned off. While both Mitt and Rudy are using these tactics to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters, they have succeeded in allowing Huckabee to distinguish himself as the positive optimist among the GOP hoard of presidential candidates.

But don’t expect Huckabee’s surge to go unchallenged. As Byron York notes in this NRO article, Huckabee has his own Willie Horton problem, and it’s worse than Mitt’s. While the story hasn’t hit the national media circuit yet, don’t expect Huckabee’s challengers to leave it that way. This isn’t the only glop of mud they will sling at him. Even his name could be a challenge. As one acquaintance tells me, he can’t keep from giggling if he says “President Huckabee” out loud.

In the meantime, Romney has become convinced that too many GOP voters are holding his religion against him. He has decided to issue a major speech tomorrow morning on the role of faith in America. No doubt it will be a great speech. But that won’t stop it from being, as Jonah Goldberg suggests (here), a farce of JFK’s hallmark speech on religion and politics. Here again, Romney is attempting to achieve some positive product differentiation. He’s likely to achieve product differentiation, but I doubt it will work out in the way he wants.

We’re down to squeeze time now. The Iowa caucuses are 29 days away. Giga-Tuesday is less than a month after that. We will probably know by the time we go to bed on February 5 who the Democratic presidential nominee will be, but we may not know even by the next morning who the GOP nominee will be. The GOP field is quite broad. There may be, as Michael Barone suggests, a brokered agreement within a few weeks after the bulk of the primaries are complete. The candidates know that even if they don’t manage to break out into a significant lead, any votes they get can be used as bargaining chips if negotiations become necessary.

Like many other GOP voters, I find myself uncommitted to any candidate at present. I see pluses and minuses to all of them. Many conservatives want to vote for the next Ronald Reagan. But none of the GOP candidates seem to be the next Reagan. Bill Bennett is fond of making the salient point that at this time in the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan didn’t look like the next Ronald Reagan either. He grew into that as time went on.

While there are plenty of dour-minded conservatives, many reject the Pat Robertson view that America is headed irretrievably down the tubes. Many still have a very positive view of America, and they want leaders that reflect that attitude. Right now, Mike Huckabee seems to exhibit this kind of optimism. The other GOP candidates; not so much. Of course, things can change quickly in the current political climate. We’ll simply have to wait and see what develops over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Dark Allure of Tyranny

The words of this title come from this WSJ article by Bret Stephens. In his article, Stephens discusses this past weekend’s popular votes in Venezuela and Russia.

In one case, would-be dictator Hugo Chavez failed to do a good enough job of fixing the election, so that his reforms, which would have pretty much made him president for life, were rejected 51%-49%. Not one to worry, however; Chavez has promised that he will ultimately succeed in implementing his desired reforms without changing them one iota.

In the other case, Vladimir Putin did a much better job of fixing the election so that his party won 64% of the vote, and other Putin allies won another 16%. International chess champion and Putin opponent Garry Kasparov complains in this article that his Other Russia Party and other dissidents were illegally shut out of the election. (Kasparov was jailed for five days on a trumped up charge in the days before the election.)

Despite charges of “voting irregularities” in favor of the tyrants in both of the cases, Stephens says that Putin in particular enjoys “genuine popularity, which seems only to have been enhanced by the perception that the West increasingly fears and mistrusts him.” Much the same could have been said about Chavez until recently when the country started experiencing food shortages as a result of his leftist policies.

The question Stephens poses is why so many people throughout the world are more favorably disposed toward tyranny than democracy. He suggests that, while it is vogue to cite culture, it ultimately “explains nothing.” He also says that the argument that dictators buy their popularity with “bread-and-circus tactics” and “dirty tricks” serves only to beg the question of why the people buy it, particularly when they have access to external sources of information.

Frankly, freedom is scary. It places responsibility for our actions squarely on our own shoulders. And liberty can be unpredictable. In fact, it can be downright chaotic at times. This is particularly true for societies freshly transitioning to freedom. Indeed, Stephens contends, “Russians and Venezuelans alike elected their current leaders with bitter memories of democracy.” And both leaders have delivered well on their promises.

I grew up during the Cold War. The horrors of life behind the Iron Curtain were made clear to us. We were exposed to rulers from behind the Iron Curtain via the media, but none of these could be trusted. The only other people from behind the curtain we got to see were dissidents that had escaped. These people obviously had an axe to grind, so they painted awful pictures of life in their native lands.

I naively thought that people in the benighted countries would welcome a reprieve from their heavy-handed masters. But as the USSR and the Eastern Bloc started to crumble, media started to get through the chinks in the curtain. I was dumbfounded that many denizens of these bleak climbs were fearful of liberty. They wanted stability. They preferred the oppression they knew to a free but uncertain future. They had been well indoctrinated.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. People can be beguiled into supporting tyranny to free them from the burden of making and living with their own choices. Of course this plays well into the hands of those that willingly snatch power in these situations.

In the Book of Mormon, the Nephite society transitioned from a monarchy to a more democratic model upon the advice of their king. “Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:38). But in the three decades following this, they fought three significant wars against those that sought to bring back a strong monarchy. A Nephite governor is later quoted as equating the spirit of freedom with the Spirit of God (Alma 61:15).

I think Stephens makes a valid point when he suggests that tyranny “springs from sources deep within ourselves: the yearning for a politics without contradictions; the terror inscribed in the act of choice.” But the desire for freedom also springs from deep within. And, if you believe the Book of Mormon governor quoted, a desire for freedom also comes from God, while the scriptures repeatedly emphasize that bondage comes from forces opposing God.

Simply because a majority of people vote for something does not necessarily imply democratic freedom. Indeed, tyrants can be and have been elected by the voice of the people. But this only happens when democratic institutions are weak or nonexistent. Long before Hitler came to power in Germany, democracy had broken down and socialism had taken control. F.A. Hayek wrote (here, p. 76), “Hitler did not have to destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.”

After Hitler came to power, he was initially quite popular. Indeed, he stabilized the economy. But his ruthlessness became his hallmark. You can see parallels of this same thing in Russia and Venezuela.

The kind of democratic institutions that support freedom do not spring up overnight. They exist in the hearts and minds of the people and are brought into being by their will. These institutions come from the people’s thumos, as explained in this 2004 WSJ op-ed. Indeed, anyone can have freedom, but they’ve got to pay for it. And it requires vigilance to maintain it. For freedom can be voted away little by little.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Venture Academy: Educational Innovation Ahead

My family is considering embarking on a new adventure in our children’s education. We have been involved in the public school system for a dozen years since our first child started school. We have at least one child in each of high school, junior high, later elementary, and early elementary school. We also have one in private preschool. So we are experiencing the full spectrum right now.

My wife recently saw a small lawn sign advertising a new charter school that will open next fall. While all of the public schools our kids have attended have been relatively close to our home, Venture Academy will be about 10-15 minutes away (under good traffic and road conditions).

A couple of nights ago I attended a meeting for people interested in the academy. Venture Academy is being put together by a group of interested parents. This group has done a great deal of work to get the school chartered for K-8, obtain funding, recruit principal staff, and advance the construction of the facility. (They are applying to add grade 9 in the 09-10 school year.)

While charter schools are part of the public school system, they do not work under the auspices of any school district. They must still meet all of the same state and federal qualifications as do regular public schools. They must still accept any student that would otherwise attend regular public schools up to their enrollment levels. However, they are at liberty to design their own curriculum (within limits).

The school board for Venture Academy is made up of concerned parents. These are people that will be known and accessible to parents whose children attend the academy. There will be no massive administrative structure. No layers of middle management. Just the parents, the staff, and the kids. And while they cannot require such, they will ask parents to donate at least 30 hours of service to the school annually. (That should be no problem, since we already do far more than that at our local elementary school.)

The message came across very clearly at the meeting I attended that Venture Academy will be scrupulously frugal, and will allot its resources mostly to implementation of core principles, values, and curriculum. Fluff and elements that do not directly support the core will be minimized or eliminated. As if to underscore this, there were no handouts of any kind at the meeting, flashy or otherwise. They simply provided their website address.

Don’t expect to see any competitive athletic teams. There will be a music program, but I am concerned about the fact that there will be no foreign language program provided. I took a foreign language for six years when I was in school. My oldest two have taken foreign language since seventh grade. My family deeply values the development of foreign language skills.

While this sounds a lot like many other charter schools, Venture Academy intrigues me because it will employ a very innovative educational approach called Expeditionary Learning. This model (see FAQ) employs a hands-on approach that seeks to help students “learn with their mind, heart, and hands,” as explained in this Edutopia discussion.

Expeditionary Learning is a non-profit organization that provides extensive training and support for teachers and schools that use the model. The model has been used for a decade and a half with pretty decent results — certainly much better results than the traditional public school model. Schools that use this model have less bullying and fewer disciplinary problems because kids are actively involved in doing rather than in mostly sitting. The focus is on where a student is today and how to move that student forward rather than focusing on where that student is in relation to the other students at the same grade level.

Each trimester, students in each grade will undertake a project that will include elements of spending time in the outdoors and performing community service. The students will not only learn math, language, science, history, PE, arts, and other curricula, but they will implement these skills in an integrated way to gain an understanding of how these skills function together. This helps children understand the ‘why’ of much of the schoolwork they do.

The people putting together Venture Academy invited those that are interested to visit Entheos Academy in Salt Lake City, which I believe is currently in its second year. Some of the people involved in Venture were involved in the development of Entheos, so they could learn how it is done.

The way enrollment works is outlined by state law. The children of the founding members come first. All other student positions are awarded by lottery beginning with the oldest grades. If a student is selected, younger siblings of that student are placed in their appropriate grade. The lottery proceeds down through the grades for remaining vacancies.

We were told at the meeting that when a new charter school opens, many parents seek to enroll their children in grades K-2, but that enrollments tend to diminish as the grades increase. Older kids are already deeply integrated in the public school system. They have social ties. Both parents and children are used to the system they are in, so fewer are interested in moving to a new charter school. Of course, this means that those that do enroll their older kids have a great advantage in getting their younger kids enrolled. Charter schools often have long waiting lists for enrollment in early grades.

Why would we consider making this jump out of the traditional public school system? My fifth grader is a very bright boy. But he has been an outside-of-the-box thinker since birth. He doesn’t always perform well in traditional systems. His just sees things differently than most people. He tends to focus on factors upon which others tend not to focus.

We were very concerned about this son as he was going into second grade. Fortunately, he ended up with one of the world’s finest second grade teachers. She used rhyme, poetry, and music to teach almost everything. My son excelled under this method of learning, but so did the whole class. At the end of the year, this second grade class performed a dramatic reader’s theater of a rhyming children’s version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Few children actually read. Most had their parts memorized — well memorized. It was far beyond anything I’d ever seen second graders do.

You might say that Macbeth sounds like a dark tale for second graders, but it was fantastic. My son played the hero Macduff. I asked him what he learned from the play. He explained that he learned that people can want worldly things so badly that they will justify horrible deeds to get them, but that personal honor and standing for right brings its own rewards.

Again we are concerned about our son’s school performance. His second grade teacher taught him well by engaging his heart and mind. I can imagine how much better he will do if his hands are engaged as well as his heart and mind. That is what Expeditionary Learning is all about. Venture Academy also seeks to rescue kids from nature deficit disorder by engaging in learning in outdoor settings in addition to classroom settings.

The open enrollment season for Venture Academy’s 08-09 season wraps up in February. Then we will find out if our children will win the lottery and be accepted into the academy. If our family is selected, we are not obligated to accept. But unless something changes, I doubt we would decline.

Charter schools cannot solve all of the problems in our education system (see here). And it is known that charter schools actually harm private schools (see here). But my family can’t afford private school. And while I understand these problems, Venture Academy offers us an unprecedented opportunity to substantially improve the quality of our children’s education starting next fall. If this all comes together, I look forward to reporting on our experiences with Expeditionary Learning next school year.