Thursday, October 27, 2005

Scalia is smarter than me

Antonin Scalia is a good and interesting writer. I just read a book review he wrote which was essentially an explanation of his legal/constitutional philosophy. He argues (astonishingly) that words have actual meaning, irrespective of the intent of the speaker. We must interpret the meaning of the words in the law rather than trying to judge what some ideal legislator might have wanted the law to say. Like I said, Scalia is smarter than me, so read the piece if you want it straight from the justice's mouth.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Recording Public Meetings

I love C-SPAN. I don't watch it all that often, but I love that I can go back to big recent events in government and watch them for myself. It is interesting to note that C-SPAN is not a government organization. I'm greatful for the resource it has become.

The Deseret News reports that there is pending legislation to force recording of public meetings to avoid possible disputes over the content of the minutes of the meeting which are the currently accepted record of the meeting.

While I think the goal is good, I don't know that it is a good investment in time or resources. There are so many problems to consider. How will you archive the recordings? Where will space be made for thousands of cassette tapes, the inexpensive recording method mentioned in the article? Once this new level of documentation is available, will we open ourselves to lawsuits if these records aren't carefully maintained? Cassette tapes are easily damagable by magnetic fields.

Suppose we instead decide on more recent technologies for recording. We have the possibility of computer glitches damaging records, accidental erasure, etc. Not to mention the extra expense of the recording equipment.

We ought to be able to rely on meeting minutes as we always have. They don't require any extra systems, staff, or storage than we are already using. Let's not put the extra burden on local governments just for the sake of "public perception". If a private citizen or a participant in the meetings chooses to record the meetings for their own purposes, more power to them. It may turn out to be a blessing. But let's not make it an obligation.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

David McCullough and the Spirit of 1776

BYU invited David McCullough to speak at a recent forum assembly. He is a well known historian. He seeks to write history the way you would write a novel. He wants history to be accessible and interesting. BYU hasn't yet posted audio, video, or transcript of his talk, though McCullough said he planned to allow them to do so. It should appear at BYU Broadcasting when it is ready.

I stayed around after the assembly for the question and answer period. I thought I would share a few bits from my notes. His real answers were invariably longer and more thorough than what you'll see here. I've only captured a few sentences or paraphrases of them. I hope they capture the essense of what he said.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing problems we face today, and what from history teaches us how to face it?
A: We lack self confidence. We can’t lose trust in our neighbor and our faith in what we stand for. We are against a foe that believes in enforced ignorance and we don’t. We will not allow circumstance to vitiate our better natures. We face environmental problems. We need to do more in the way of service. If I were to criticize the president, I would say that he has not called upon us to serve sufficiently. We want to help. We want to serve. We want to be useful. McCullough was near the white house on 9/11 and saw it all happen. The looks on the faces on the people leaving the Whitehouse was not panic but concern about how to help. They went to donate blood and couldn’t because so many had already tried to do so. Everybody wants to help!

Q: Do you feel God had a hand in the Revolution?
A: There was a force beyond our understanding. Miracles happened. I won’t get into the theological explanation as that is personal and beyond my capacity.

Q: Were the Founding Fathers just out to protect their economic interests? That is how it is often taught today in schools. What do you think of the current teaching of history?
A: There are many great historians. But they shouldn’t only be writing for other historians. If people don’t want to read the history, it isn’t of much worth. Those who write history should aspire to write literature. If they don’t do that, then history will die because nobody will want to read it. I write narrative history and I love to read narrative history.

Q: Are we losing the “Spirit of 1776”?
A: It is not lost, but eroding. We aren’t teaching history well enough. That is our fault, not the fault of the children. Let’s not overemphasize how dark our own times are. We’ve been through worse times than 9/11 or any other calamity we’ve recently seen. Those who make those claims that these are the worst times are historically ignorant. Think of 1776, Nazi Germany, Great Depression. “We’ve haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy” Winston Churchill.

Q: Would you have followed Adams or Jefferson?
A: I’m an Adams man. He had moral and physical courage. The only founding father who never owned a slave as a matter of principle. He saw through a lot of the smoke and mirrors of some of the other philosophical political opinion of the time. Humble background. Not some rich, Boston, blue-blood. An example of the transforming miracle of education. John Adams did not believe that “all men are created equal”. Some have certain advantages or disadvantages, but they are all equal in the eyes of God and the law, said he. Jefferson was the great spokesperson for the common man. But he removed himself from the common man as far as he could get. Is this the man that said “all men are created equal”? Adams said, “beware of the common man. I know; I’m one of them!” “We are a government of laws and not of men.” “A strong central government is important.” The country was held together across the fault line that was inequality and slavery, by George Washington for 8 years. What a miracle it was that he was the first president.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Solving the 3rd Party Dilemma

It is very difficult for a "3rd party" candidate to succeed in a statewide or nationwide political race. For example, when Ralph Nader ran against Al Gore and George W. Bush, many people that wanted to vote against Bush dared not vote for Nader because they didn't want to rob Gore of votes needed to win. The same thing happened when Ross Perot ran against Clinton and Bush. Perot took votes that might have otherwise gone to Bush, thus giving the race to Clinton.

The solution is "preference choice voting" or "instant runoff voting." Under this voting scheme, a voter can indicate their ordered preference for candidates. They can give their first choice to the 3rd party candidate (for example) and then their second choice to another major party candidate. This allows people to avoid feeling like they are "wasting" their vote on a candidate with little choice of winning.

Under this voting system, we could see how much support a 3rd party candidate really has. Their ideas could gain more traction when people are behind those ideas. When the votes are tallied and your first choice candidate doesn't win (and no other candidate already has the majority of votes needed for victory) your vote will be re-tallied for your second choice candidate. For more information and a live demo of how this voting system works, check out

So what prevents us from trying our preference choice voting? It complicates the voting process. I have to find a way to indicate my first, second, and third choice candidates. During some of the closely contested elections (e.g. Florida 2000) we've seen how difficult it can be for voters to cast a vote on a traditional ballot. Surely we can find a way around that complication!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Bell Curve is Back

The author of the controversial book The Bell Curve is back with an article at He points out that there is a broad ditribution in every group, but that we can expect the overall contributions of groups to be different. Some of the more interesting quotes from the long article:
In the autumn of 1994, I had watched with dismay as "The Bell Curve" 's scientifically unremarkable statements about black IQ were successfully labeled as racist pseudoscience. At the opening of 2005, I watched as some scientifically unremarkable statements about male-female differences were successfully labeled as sexist pseudoscience.

Affirmative action in all its forms assumes there are no innate differences between any of the groups it seeks to help and everyone else. The assumption of no innate differences among groups suffuses American social policy. That assumption is wrong.

Several analyses have confirmed the genetic reality of group identities going under the label of race or ethnicity. In the most recent, published this year, all but five of the 3,636 subjects fell into the cluster of genetic markers corresponding to their self-identified ethnic group. When a statistical procedure, blind to physical characteristics and working exclusively with genetic information, classifies 99.9% of the individuals in a large sample in the same way they classify themselves, it is hard to argue that race is imaginary.

How much damage has the taboo done to the education of children? Christina Hoff Sommers has argued that willed blindness to the different developmental patterns of boys and girls has led many educators to see boys as aberrational and girls as the norm, with pervasive damage to the way our elementary and secondary schools are run. Is she right? Few have been willing to pursue the issue lest they be required to talk about innate group differences. Similar questions can be asked about the damage done to medical care, whose practitioners have only recently begun to acknowledge the ways in which ethnic groups respond differently to certain drugs.

Thus my modest recommendation, requiring no change in laws or regulations, just a little more gumption. Let us start talking about group differences openly--all sorts of group differences, from the visuospatial skills of men and women to the vivaciousness of Italians and Scots. Let us talk about the nature of the manly versus the womanly virtues. About differences between Russians and Chinese that might affect their adoption of capitalism. About differences between Arabs and Europeans that might affect the assimilation of Arab immigrants into European democracies. About differences between the poor and nonpoor that could inform policy for reducing poverty.

Friday, October 07, 2005

ACLU in the Times and Seasons

I left a comment today at T&S which I'd like to reproduce here so I can easily find it. The original post defended the position that members of the Church of Jesus Christ can also be members of the ACLU which sometimes opposes that church.


Your logic on all the sticky issues relied on the true statement that not all sins should be crimes. For example, envy would be hard to prosecute lacking objective mind-reading tools and thus would be a bad candidate for a crime. There is a continuum of sins ranging from those that should clearly be crimes (e.g. murder) to those that should not (e.g. envy). There is room on this continuum for reasonable people to differ. When a person or organization falls all the way to either end of that continuum, we can infer that they are not being “reasonable.” The real estate at the very edge of the continuum (for reasons speculated at by other posters) seems to be occupied by the ACLU. It would seem, then, that supporting that organization would be unreasonable or even illogical.

Elder Oaks has observed: “Similarly, some reach the pro-choice position by saying we should not legislate morality. Those who take this position should realize that the law of crimes legislates nothing but morality. Should we repeal all laws with a moral basis so our government will not punish any choices some persons consider immoral? Such an action would wipe out virtually all of the laws against crimes.”

Given that all laws legislate morality and that we as church members believe that our morals lead to a happy life and good society, how could we in good conscience support an organization that opposes our morals? In summation, I see how you can, by sliding to the far edge of the sin/crime continuum, reconcile church membership with ACLU membership. But I just don’t get why any reasonable person would want to go there.

I’d love to read a follow-up post that would prove to me the goodness of the ACLU’s positions rather than just the acceptableness of them. I believe you are an advocate of the good and I just can’t wrap my mind around how you’re getting there. Please write more!