12 December 2010

The Filibernie of 2010

What words can one possibly add to Senator Bernie Sanders' epic not-really-a-filibuster this past Friday? Since it went on for eight and a half hours, not much.  No doubt that it was a terrific piece of political theater, unlikely to shape any substantive policy (but for the purest example of political theater imaginable, see Bill Clinton's appearance in the White House briefing room at approximately the same time).  I am however, utterly disappointed in the lack of media coverage the speech attracted after the fact.  For one rare moment, Senator Sanders managed to break through the corporate PR-speak talking points that have become the stock in trade of both political parties, and spoke the truth to power about the miserable inequality and injustice in the American political and economic system.  If you missed the speech (broadcast live and in its entirety on CSPAN, which practically guarantees that everyone missed it), and gathered your news from the 24-hour cable networks and a couple of prominent national newspapers the next day, you would hardly have been able to detect any trace that someone had given a speech that lasted almost the entire workday of most Americans.  Where was the thoughtful analysis of Sanders' bold claims?  Where was the counter-evidence?  Is the system really as bad as he says it is?  Or is he just some old crank rattling off a bunch of misleading and meaningless figures? As with all stories that don't quite fit with the media's preferred simple left-and-right narrative, or which discomfits the corporate overlords, it is best that such things are simply forgotten, now and forever.

21 November 2010

What I Am Reading- E-Mail Edition

A couple of months ago, I wrote here on my need for a digital diet.  I would be lying if I said that I had made any significant progress on decreasing the quantity of my time spent reading online.  However, I can say that I have been making a concerted effort to read more carefully and slowly, thus avoiding the problems of a decreased attention span that I was worried about.  I thought that it would be useful to set out what exactly I spend all of that time reading on a daily basis and why I cannot manage to give it up.  This time, I will limit myself to things that are delivered directly to my inbox on a regular basis.  I will reserve a separate page for blogs and for other websites.

1) New York Times - I get a summary of the NYT headlines twice a day, first thing in the morning and the afternoon update when the markets close.  I certainly cannot say that I read it "cover-to-cover" if such a thing even exists on the Internet.  I will generally read 1-2 articles in the top headlines, along with a scattering of articles in the Nation, World, Politics, and Business sections.  I generally steer clear of the editorials, but I do follow a couple of the major op-ed writers (e.g. Krugman) and guest contributors.  On Fridays, I receive the Movies and Books update.  I don't really make decisions on what I want to see at the movies based on reviews, but I do take a lot of recommendations for books from the NYT.

2) Washington Post- I get a daily e-mail from the WP similar to the one I described in the NYT.  I tend to read fewer articles here, since many of the top stories are duplicative of what I have already read in the NYT. I do make a practice of reading more deeply in some of the political or policy analysis pieces, since I expect the WP to have a deeper expertise in the area that any other publication.  I also read any of E.J. Dionne's columns, and other columns with topics of interest (though I tend to find the WP's main political columnists pretty pathetic).  I also receive the Sunday Agenda and Sunday Roundup, which give me the gist of what was said by policymakers on the major Sunday morning talk shows, shows that I generally miss while I am away at church.

3) Slatest - For those who are not familiar, the online magazine Slate sends out a list of 12 links to some of the most important stories three times a day-- morning, afternoon, and evening.  The idea was introduced back in 2009, and I find that the idea appeals to me more than its execution.  The original plan was that the Slatest could track a couple of stories as they developed throughout the day across a variety of the most reputable sources, including major blogs, national newspapers, and wire services.  In reality, 6-8 of the 12 links are the same from one edition to another.  Not quite as dynamic as I had hoped.  Many of the stories that Slatest links to are things that I already picked up in the WP or the NYT, but Slatest tends to round out my reading with articles from newspapers in Chicago, Boston, or the West Coast.  Slatest will also pick up some quirky story from time to time that makes for just fun reading.  Again, I cannot say that I ever read all 12 stories (again because of the duplication from other sources and between editions), but I generally read 2-3 each time Slatest is published.

4) Wonkbook - Technically this is a Washington Post product, but it seems different enough to list here.  Ezra Klein, a prolific liberal blogger, created this daily morning roundup of policy news as a regular part of his blog now hosted at the WP.  I like it because it tends to focus a little more on policy, featuring the opinions of experts and academics, rather than politicians and their talking points.  I read it in its entirety.

5) The Browser- This is a daily e-mail digest of 10-15 really interesting stories from around the web.  It does a good job of avoiding most of the mainstream American journalism like you see on Slatest, but picks up overseas stories, longer essays, and items of cultural and artistic interest.  I generally read 1-3 stories from each edition.

6) Today's Big Thing- I almost don't want to admit that I follow this, but here goes anyway.  This is a frivolous and fun little list of 5-6 viral videos that are going around the Web on a daily basis.  Its good for a couple of laughs at the end of a long day.  I typically watch 1 or 2.

7) Houston Press- Weekly e-mail from Houston's alternative weekly magazine.  Usually stories of local interest only.  I generally read the main story maybe once a month.

8) New York Review of Books- Biweekly e-mail from literary magazine.  These are typically longer reviews than found in the weekly NYT and they are a little more selective in picking titles of higher quality and significance.  I read 1-2 essays in each edition.

9) NPR Book Notes- Another set of book articles.  Not focused entirely on reviews.  This is a recent addition for me.  I read 1-2 articles in each weekly edition.

So that's it.  Like I said above, we have not even scratched the surface of what I read in terms of blogs and print materials, much less other websites I follow daily by other means.

24 October 2010

Rome Temple Groundbreaking

Three years ago this month, I published a post on this blog (one of my first) comparing my impressions of visiting Temple Square in Salt Lake City with my first visit to the Vatican in Rome.  A year later, in the October 2008 General Conference, President Monson announced that the LDS Church would be building a temple in Rome, Italy.  At that time, I updated my original post with some thoughts about my aspirations (and fears) about this project.  Curiously, I still receive a new comment on that post about every six months.  As I checked my Google Analytics stats a couple of weeks ago, that post is by several orders of magnitude my most viewed.  Needless to say, I find this puzzling (if not a little disappointing).  The only explanation that I can find is that one of the pictures I used comes up early in a Google Images search for the Vatican, and that my post is one of the first links in a search for "LDS Rome temple" or some variation thereof.  I never imagined that the post would get the kind of readership it did; if I had, I might have done a more thoughtful and nuanced job of it.

The main thrust of the original post was my own preference for the human warmth of Temple Square vs. the stony opulence of the Vatican.   Some might say that I am biased, since I am Mormon and not Catholic, to which I would reply, "Well, duh."  I think that some took the post to be too combative and too critical of the Vatican, especially given a history of anti-Catholic sentiment among Mormons.  Maybe the "vs." in the post's title set it up to be too much of a competition.  Such was not my intention.  The point was never to put the two tourist attractions up against one another as proof of either institution's value or truth claims.  That would have been silly.  But, as I stated towards the beginning of my original post, no Mormon who visits the Vatican can escape the comparison, even if only in his own head.  In all frankness, while I retain my own preference (for reasons that are personal and biased), I am not entirely convinced that, for a more objective observer, Temple Square comes off favorably at all in the comparison.  More on that below.  At the very least, I was allowed to tour the Vatican and enjoy all of the sights without being molested by missionaries asking for people who might want to talk to them about becoming Catholic.

Many of the comments to the updated post fell into two categories: an overenthusiastic defense of Catholicism or an overenthusiastic defense of Mormonism.  (Note: While the post currently shows only seven comments, several others were deleted for content and tone).  One (Catholic) commenter accused me of having a "holy envy" towards the Roman Catholic Church, and chiding me for comparing the two where the LDS Church's contributions to Western civilization are so much slighter than those of the Roman Catholic Church's.  The two points are linked.  I will concede the holy envy point.  To equate what Mormons have historically created in the world of art, architecture, music, and thought on par with what Catholics (or those influenced by the Catholic tradition) have created would be a fool's errand.  That is not to say that all of those contributions have been unequivocally positive (ditto Mormonism).  But it remains an apples-to-oranges comparison.  The LDS Church is currently less than 200 years old, when compared with a history of nearly 2000 years for the Catholic Church.  The LDS Church has never had the level of political power or patronage that the Catholic Church has wielded over the centuries.  Nevertheless, the Catholic Church at only 200 years old had not produced any of its most enduring and beautiful patrimony.  One could argue that most, if not all, of what is most awe-inspiring about the Vatican (and by extension, the Catholic Church) mostly originates in its second millennium of existence.  I hope that Mormonism has a brighter future as it ages and matures.  Anyone who knows me would never mistake me for a proponent for the shallow kitsch that passes as Mormon culture in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The other set of commenters (primarily writing in response to the comment I referenced above) fall into the predictable pattern of far too many Mormons, that of a nearly congenital inability to see anything good outside of their own faith tradition.  Several LDS commenters wanted to compare the Vatican to the temple itself, and not to Temple Square.  While some of the fault lies with the comparison that I first proposed, there is a fundamental way in which the Vatican and the temple differ so as to render any such comparison of little utility.  St. Peter's Basilica (and the attached buildings) is a house of worship, but for nearly all 365 days each year, it is open to the public as a tourist attraction.  While Temple Square is a tourist attraction, the Temple itself (or at least its interior) is off limits to the public-- it is used purely for worship.  This is not meant as a value judgment on either, but merely to point out their differences.  Some of these commenters were too harsh in their critique of the value that the Catholic Church places on the ornamentation of the Vatican buildings.  That critique is off base first because it ignores that these buildings simply serve a different purpose from LDS temples, but also because it ignores that others' definition of what constitutes "worship" may be significantly broader than our own.

So now the LDS Church has finally broken ground on the Rome temple.  An architectural rendering is found at the top of this post.  I am pleased that the temple is not one of the cookie-cutter mini-temples.  As far as I can tell, the design of this temple is original, as I have not see any other temple with these particular features.  One cannot know what the interior may look like without attending the temple once completed (or at least the open house), but I am hopefully that there will be some originality there as well.  Despite what many of co-religionists will be tempted to argue ("The ordinances are what matter, no what the building looks like"), the image that the temple presents does matter.  If not, we could just do the ordinances in a barn.  To the contrary, the LDS Church spends millions of dollars on each of its temples (far more than the Catholic Church spends on its buildings abroad, I might add), precisely because we do care what kind of image these edifices project.  I am also heartened by the fact that the temple grounds appear to indicate plans for a visitor's center and an arts/cultural center (those would be the buildings to the left and top of the temple itself.  The building to the right is likely an ordinary meetinghouse).  I am hopeful that the Church will avail itself of the opportunity to feature art and LDS history that is local to Europe, and not put up the same ten or twelve paintings that we have in every building and temple elsewhere in the Church.

Overall, I am encouraged by the plans that have been put forth.  It remains to be seen how they will be implemented, but what I have seen leaves me more sanguine about what the Rome Temple could become.

10 October 2010

The Federal Budget Game

Recently this article by scholars at Harvard Business School and Duke University has been getting a lot of attention.  Its not a long article, so by all means, read it in its entirety.  The gist of the article is that, based on a survey of a representative sample of over 5,000 Americans, Americans have no clue about the present state of wealth (not income) inequality in this country, but also that their desired distribution of wealth differs vastly from reality (in fact, Americans would find the distribution of wealth in Sweden to be most agreeable).  While the first conclusion is worrying, the second is generally heartening.  The fact that more people approve of a more equal distribution of wealth ought to be celebrated.  However, survey results cannot confer on any distribution of wealth the status of "true," "fair," or "right."  More robust ethical reflection is necessary to determine such things.  Nevertheless, studies like these are not without utility.  They show us what people believe, but more helpfully, suggest why they may act in certain ways or promote certain policies.  This is particularly interesting when a group's erroneous views may contribute to a lack of support for rational policymaking.

I thought that it might be a useful experiment to apply similar techniques to government spending, and in particular the U.S. budget.  What I have laid out below are two quizzes, or rather one quiz and one survey.  The quiz asks how much of the federal budget is allocated to specific programs.  The survey asks, if you had total budgetary discretion, how much of the federal budget you would allocate to those same programs.  Please take both but follow the instructions carefully and complete both the quiz and the survey before looking at the answers to the quiz itself.  The effect is ruined if you see the answers before taking the survey.

First, the basics.  President Obama's requested federal budget for Fiscal Year 2011 is estimated to be $1.415 trillion dollars.  This includes only discretionary spending, meaning that the President and/or Congress can change the amount allocated for each program or department from year to year.  That figure does not include mandatory spending, or programs which must be paid out (i.e. entitlements), which consists primarily of Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, other income security programs (unemployment, food stamps), interest on the national debt, etc.  Many of these mandatory programs are not paid for through general income taxes, but through other forms of taxation.  With those categories included, the federal budget is $3.69 trillion.  The estimated deficit appears to be nearly the size of the entire discretionary budget; or about $1.3 trillion dollars.  I have not included every category of discretionary spending, so you should not expect the numbers to add up to 100%.  Please don't cheat by looking these numbers up elsewhere.  The point is not to test what you know, but to see what you think.

The answers to the quiz are embedded in the post itself.  However, the text is blacked out so you have to highlight it in order to see it.  Obviously, this is not a real research study.  It is mostly for fun, but also to make a point, which will be discussed below.  If you want to share, feel free to leave your answers in a comment below. 

1.  What percentage of the federal discretionary budget do you believe is spent in the following discretionary categories?

a.  Defense/national security (Overseas operations, soldiers, equipment, etc.)- 63%
b.  Foreign aid - <1%
c.  Housing/Urban Development- 4.5%
d.  Education (includes grants to states) - 9.9%
e.  Federally funded research and development* - 10.4%
f.  Transportation (highways, rail)- 7%
g.  Governmental salaries- 1.4%

* This number includes some defense-related research; therefore, there may be some overlap between this category and the defense/national security category.

2.  What percentage of the overall federal (discretionary and mandatory) budget do you believe is spent in the following mandatory categories?

a.  Medicare- 13.5%
b.  Medicaid grants to states 7%
c.  Unemployment - 2%
d.  Food stamps- 2%
e.  Social Security retirement/disability - 20%

3.  What percentage of the discretionary federal budget do you believe should be allocated to the following priorities?

a.  Defense/homeland security
b.  Foreign aid
c.  Housing/Community Development
d.  Education
e.  R&D
f.  Transportation
g.  Government salaries

4.  What percentage of the overall federal budget do you believe should be allocated to the following priorities?

a.  Medicare
b.  Medicaid grants to states
c.  Unemployment
d.  Food stamps
e.  Social Security retirement/disability
Please leave your answers before reading below.
Simply put, the point of this post is that anybody who tells you that they want to eliminate or significantly reduce the deficit by cutting non-defense discretionary spending is a know-nothing hack.  Nearly 60% of the overall federal budget comes from four areas: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and defense-related programs.  Of course, the reason that these budget line items were allowed to get so big in the first place is because there are interested parties and lobbyists pushing for more spending in these areas.  And so cutting them is more difficult than budget cuts in many other areas which are not quite so large.  Nevertheless, it is plainly foolhardy to believe that we can eliminate a deficit of the size of nearly the entire discretionary budget (more than 33% of the overall budget) by attacking only 40% of the overall budget.  (And at the same time when we maintain a military that spends more than all of the other militaries of the world combined.)

Also, Americans' favorite choice for significantly reducing federal spending? Foreign aid.  Of course, it is hard to see how we could spend less on this, and even have it show up in the budget.  The Economist survey to which I linked does not list government salaries (particularly those of the legislative branch) as an option for spending cuts, though I am certain that if it were, it would come in a close second, if not first.

As I pointed out in my initial paragraph, none of this information, nor your answers to the above questions, can tell us what is the "right" or "perfect" federal budget.  It is likely that many fair allocations exist.  Nevertheless, it is even more likely, if not practically certain, that the current allocation is suboptimal, and not simply for the fact of spending too much on everything.  My greater purpose here was to see if people could imagine more useful and prudent spending if they were provided with sufficiently complete and objective information about how our money is currently spent.

Some links- Death and Taxes; NYT Budget Graph
Note: I gathered budget data from several different sources.  If there are problems in the way I have calculated percentages, I will gladly correct them if pointed to a better source.  It is not easy to get simply, straight-forward information about this subject, which of course, is part of the problem in the first place.  One of the chief problems is that different sources define spending categories differently, and some calculate percentages based on overall budget, while a few look at the discretionary budget.  I have tried at the very least to be internally consistent, but I cannot claim infallibility.

30 September 2010

The Modern Death of Civic-Mindedness

On Monday, I had a long stretch of document review that needed to be done at work.  As is my habit, I turned on a podcast for something to listen to, so that I would not "zone out" while staring at my screen for several hours.  One of my selections was a recording from RadioWest by KUER in Salt Lake City on "The Changing Face of Retirement."  The substance of the conversation is not my topic, but rather one particularly interesting exchange between one of the guests, Dr. Ken Dycktwald, an expert in gerontology and economic issues relating to retirement, and a call-in listener.

The listener remarked that she had a good job but was approaching an age when she could retire and claim Social Security benefits.  Part of her job involved training young people to perform her job.  Her question for Dr. Dycktwald was whether it would be better for society, in the context of the current economic and budgetary crisis, if she chose to retire and allow some younger person to take her job, or if she continued to work so that she was not drawing on Social Security so early in her life.  Dr. Dycktwald seemed somewhat perplexed by her question, simply because he had never yet encountered someone who seemed to take societal consequences for such decisions seriously as a factor in making those decisions, or at least more seriously than a personal preference for one option or the other.

Alas, the listener's attitude is all too rare.  Serious reflection on what is best for society as a whole, even if not best for me and my family, is in seriously short supply these days.  The problem is particularly endemic in the United States, with its strong individualistic streak.  Of course, there are plenty of people who are willing to extrapolate their personal preferences onto the rest of society, passing off their own choices as what the rest of us ought to want.  That particular mode of thinking seems particularly ingrained in contemporary American society, and especially in its most vocal elements.  But could a more thoughtful contemplation of societal costs and benefits rationalize the tough decisions about economics and governmental budgets that we will inevitably face in the coming years?  Nothing would help more.

21 September 2010

Call for Papers (Revised)- Faith and Knowledge Conference

I posted this previously a couple of months ago, but a new version of the call for papers was recently released.  Please take a look and submit proposals if you are interested.

The Intellectual Prospects for Mormonism”: The Third Biannual Faith and Knowledge Conference for LDS Graduate Students in Religion
Duke University
February 11-12, 2011
The Faith and Knowledge conference series was established in 2006 to bring together LDS graduate students and young faculty in religious studies and related disciplines in order to explore the intellectual interactions between religious faith and scholarship.  In past conferences, graduate students have been invited to reflect upon aspects of their own   intellectual reconciliations—or their failures to do so—between church and academy, and to offer fruitful solutions to fellow students undergoing similar intellectual journeys.
In keeping with these past objectives, we invite graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines working on issues related to religion (including philosophy, anthropology, sociology, ethics, history, and others) to consider Mormonism’s prospects. What intellectual and ethical issues do Mormons now face in the academy and in the intellectual world generally?  What are Mormonism’s prospects for development, reconciliation, or heightened conflict?
The conference will feature a keynote address by Grant Hardy, author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide.
Papers should be brief, pointed comments of ten to fifteen minutes reflecting the author’s experience and designed to serve as starting points for discussion.
Travel and accommodations subsidies will be available for those who contribute papers.
The deadline for paper proposals has been extended to Oct 15, 2010. Short proposals (no more than 250 words) should be sent to Ariel Bybee Laughton ( ariel.laughton AT gmail.com).  Presenters will be notified by November 15, 2010.

19 September 2010

I am a 600-pound digital man

My doctor recently recommended that I change my diet.  It was not related to my weight, but to other nutritional issues.  The nice side effect of paying greater attention to what I eat and how much I exercise has been a 15-pound weight loss that I was not expecting.

Those improvements in my overall health notwithstanding, digitally speaking, I am still a 600 pound man-- the kind of man you see on those crazy Discovery Channel/TLC shows that has to be cut out of the walls of his own home in order to go to the hospital.  My daily digital consumption seems like one of those ridiculous diets they put Olympic athletes in training on-- 14 eggs, 10 pancakes, 7 sausage links, etc.  For starters, I wake up with about 10-15 emails in my inbox.  Most of these can be deleted with a slight glimpse, but a little less than half are news digests from NYT, WaPo, etc. that get me up to date on the latest news.  About ten or so more of these types of emails will find themselves in my inbox throughout the rest of the day.  And that's just for the car/bus ride to or from work.  Throughout the day I have sprinkled a hundred or so posts on Google Reader (RSS aggregator), mostly short blurbs on politics, news analysis, general journalism, etc.  Unfortunately, its the kind of volume that if I do not manage to clear it out each day, I practically have to schedule a block of time to work through it all.  At the same time, I am visiting various websites touching on numerous topics of interest-- television/movies, science fiction, technology, politics, etc.  And of course, I check Facebook and Twitter more times than I am comfortable admitting.  The truth is, I am not so much browsing the Internet, as I am mainlining it directly into my brain.  The heroin metaphor is not unintentional.

My media issues are not a problem of quality, but of volume.  I actually think that I have pretty good standards when it comes to what I choose to read.  What I consume on a daily basis has none of the following categories: 24-hour cable news, celebrity gossip, low-brow humor websites, or those crazy e-mail forwards from "that" uncle, which are the trans fats of the digital food pyramid.  Then again, if you ask me  each evening what I read, what was good, and what I thought about it, I probably could not offer you any intelligent commentary.  I read so much, and have to do it so fast, that what I am left with are more often mere  fleeting impressions, rather than actual ideas.

I recently read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain and it was near-perfect diagnosis.  If you read frequently on the Internet like I do, I highly recommend this book.  Heck, even if you don't consume digital text the way I do, or know someone who does, I still recommend it.  The gist of the book is that the quantity of information available through the Internet, the way in which it is presented, and the methods with which we have become accustomed to consuming it are fragmenting our minds and our consciousness.  The author recounts finding himself increasingly unable to read long-form prose (longer essays, books) or track lengthy and detailed arguments, due to his exposure to shorter, more frequent bursts of information (e.g. blogs, Wikipedia, etc.)  I am the last person in the world who is going to demonize blogs, Twitter, and their like, but I have seen some of the same problems in myself.  As I stated earlier, I find myself less able to recall things that I have read, even very recently, and much less able to intelligently discuss it.  It is increasingly difficult to read longer, multi-page quantities of prose.

What, then, is to be done?  The immediately prior question is, of course, what do I want to get out of it?  The simple answer is, I want to remain a reasonably (but higher-than-average) informed citizen, but one who is better able to recall, analyze, and discuss what I read on a daily basis.   I aspire to read slightly less, but much better.  I have considered the "digital detox," but like a complete renunciation of chocolate or Mt. Dew, obsession with quitting would likely lead to some ugly binge/purge cycles not unlike anorexia.  A diet is necessary--but how?  A couple of things I have learned:

1.  Alert plug-ins, reminders, and pop-ups are your enemy, with tabbed browsers running a close second.  I recently disabled the Gmail and Google Reader alert plug-ins from my browser at work.  The constant "ding!" of fresh messages was too much of a siren song for me.  Having to type in "www.gmail.com", etc. at least gives me time to reconsider whether I really have a moment to check that inbox.  The Google Reader can be checked at certain intervals, for example, once upon arriving at the office, once at lunch, and once in the evening.  Regrettably, because the nature of the work I do and the expectations of my supervising attorneys, the alerts on my work Outlook mailbox and Blackberry must remain on.

In my opinion, tabbed browsing is the single greatest innovation in Web browsing in the past 6-7 years.  I was an early adopter of Firefox and Chrome, and IE eventually picked up on the technology, though I still use it only when forced to.  However, the added ease and convenience of organizing items currently being or to be read is not without cost.  Those six or seven tabs to Slate stories constantly remind me that I really need to plow through this long essay in the New Yorker.  The better solution is to use synchronizing bookmarks (e.g. Google Bookmarks) to keep things that are "to be read but can't be read right now" in one place for safe keeping.

2.  Time and distance can make the heart grow less fond.  This is particularly true with the vast and varied amount of material I receive through my Google Reader feeds.  Saving 20 or so stories from a website for a day or two before reading them often gives me the opportunity to reflect on whether it is really worth reading in the first place.  When it seems like only one of two or three stories, the threshold is awfully low.  But if it is one of 20+, one ought to be more discerning.  Often the story has moved on from whatever initial notice you received.  Other things sound interesting at the time, but coming around to it again, one often reads some better version of the same item elsewhere.

Will I succeed in reducing my daily kilobyte intake and regain full use of my faculties?  Who knows?  I have been at this an awfully long time, and it has been getting worse and not better for most of my past.  But I am looking forward to trying and seeing how much better I might function when not plugged into the Matrix.

09 August 2010

The Prop 8 (Perry) Decision for Laymen

I am generally displeased with the quality of most journalism surrounding constitutional law and the cases interpreting and affecting it.  Most of this kind of journalism tends to focus purely on the political (the motivation of the judges, which party will benefit, etc.), and even those few journalists who attempt sincerely and valiantly to explain the decisions (Linda Greenhouse, Dahlia Lithwick) generally write for those who have some degree of training in law or political science.  What remains for consumption of the general public are a few choice and key quotes from the judge or panel's opinion.  While these quotes may convey the essence of the decision, without any background or further exposition, they give readers the impression that these ideas were pulled out of thin air. This tends to decrease confidence in the integrity and wisdom of the judicial branch, and is deleterious to democracy in itself.

  What I want to attempt to do here is describe and explain Judge Vaughn Walker's decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (the "Prop 8 case"), which struck down California's anti-same-sex marriage referendum on Wednesday, in a way that is comprehensible to someone who has never gone to law school (or for that matter, to college).  I have made every effort to refrain from editorializing on the opinion's merits or on same-sex marriage in general.

Since many of you will not want to read all of what will be a quite long post, I have moved the key analysis and conclusions section to the beginning.  If you wish to read the entirety of this piece, please skip to the horizontal line then return here when you reach the end.

Conclusions of Law
Based on the court's Findings of Fact (see below), the court made several conclusions interpreting the caselaw of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process (no state "[shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law") and Equal Protection Clauses (no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws").  The analyses under each clause involves different legal theories and requirements; however, they are based on the same underlying determination-- that the right to marry is "fundamental."  The "fundamental" status of a right depends on its history and legal tradition.  The status of marriage as a fundamental right has a long pedigree in the United States.  The key question is whether the right sought by plaintiffs is a new right, the right to same-sex marriage, or is the same "right to marry" as has long been recognized.  To determine whether the right claimed by plaintiffs is the same fundamental right, the court examined the precise nature and content of the right sought.  The court found that the chief characteristics of marriage that remain unchanged throughout history are: two parties giving free consent, forming a household, and supporting one another and their dependents.  It determined that neither procreative ability nor specific and distinct gender roles were vital to marriage.  Instead, under modern marriage principles, men and women are recognized as equals and are free to negotiate their own roles on the basis of their individual relationship.  Individuals are granted a space of choice and intimacy in making decisions regarding their marriage, including whom they choose to marry.  After establishing the core values of marriage, the court found that same-sex couples are "situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage."  Therefore, the court found that same-sex couples did not seek recognition of a new right, but rather of the same right to marry as is currently enjoyed by opposite-sex couples.

Having determined that the right to marry sought by plaintiffs was fundamental, the Due Process Clause prohibits government from burdening the exercise of that right unless it can show that the government has a "compelling interest" in burdening it and that the law is carefully limited and designed ("narrowly tailored") to accomplish that objective.  [Under contemporary constitutional jurisprudence, this test is known as "strict scrutiny" and is the most stringent of the constitutional tests.]  Furthermore, the court recognized that "fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."  The court found that Prop 8 could not meet even the much lower test [known as "rational basis review"] of showing any legitimate government interest in preventing same-sex couples from marrying.  The potential government interests identified by proponents are discussed below.

The Equal Protection Clause asks whether the government creates a classification that targets a "suspect class" (a class with a history of discrimination that may be unable to defend itself from such discrimination) or burdens a fundamental right.  Plaintiffs argued, and the court accepted, that Prop 8 discriminated in allowing individuals to exercise a fundamental right both on the basis of gender (men could marry women, but could not marry other men, etc.) and on sexual orientation. These categories are both constitutionally protected, but courts have not subjected such classifications to strict scrutiny (i.e. they are not a suspect class).  Nevertheless, the court found that gays and lesbians are the type of minority that the Equal Protection Clause was designed to protect, due to their history of discrimination based on false stereotypes.  While the gender classification applies to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, Prop 8 eliminates a right "only a gay man or a lesbian would exercise," therefore there was a classification uniquely damaging to homosexuals.  As was the case with the Due Process Clause analysis cited above, the court found that the proponents could not even show any legitimate government interest to which Prop 8 was rationally related-- it could not pass even the weakest constitutional test.  

The court went on to analyze rationales offered by the proponents as legitimate government interests that Prop 8 could advance, namely: (1) preserving "traditional marriage"; (2) proceeding with caution in enacting social change; (3) promoting opposite-sex parenting; (4) protecting the freedom of those who oppose same-sex marriage; and (5) distinguishing between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples.  The court reviewed these rationales extensively, but determined in each case that a) that the rationale was not a legitimate one for government (e.g. tradition alone); b) that the rationale was not reasonable given the evidence provided (i.e. that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples were fundamentally the same and that children were not adversely affected by being raised with two same-sex parents); or c) that Prop 8 would actually produce effects that damaged the interests identified by proponents (i.e. that the purpose was not reasonably related to what Prop 8 would actually cause).

Having reviewed and rejected all of the proposed interests, the court inferred, as supported by evidence in the trial record, that Prop 8's true motivation was not a legitimate government interest, but a "private moral view" about the immorality and inferiority of same-sex couples.  The court then cited past Supreme Court cases stating that such beliefs are "not a proper basis on which to legislate."

Having found no "rational basis" for the law, but instead only an impermissible moral disapproval at the heart of Prop 8, the court declared Prop 8 unconstitutional under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.


I will not rehearse the facts of the Prop 8 saga, since I assume that they will be well-known to any who have an interest in reading what is to follow.  What I will say is that in May 2008, the California Supreme Court held that California counties were required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  In November of that same year, Proposition 8 revised the California Constitution to provide that marriage was between one man and one woman.  In the intervening period, approximately 18,000 same-sex couples took advantage of the availability of marriage licenses.  Those marriages were unaffected by Prop 8.

Grounds for Challenge
The plaintiffs, who are same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses following the passage of Prop 8, challenged the law under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.  The proponents of Prop 8, who intervened in the case in lieu of the various state governmental officials who were named defendants (who had refused to defend the law), defended the law on the grounds that same-sex marriage would effect certain negative consequences that California had an interest in preventing by prohibiting the marriage of same-sex couples.

Review of Evidence
The court reviewed the testimony that had been provided at trial.  [In the American federal court system, the trial court (or district court) hears the evidence and makes certain findings of fact.  Appellate courts, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, may review the evidence produced at trial, but do not repeat the trial itself.  Generally, such courts are confined to determining whether the trial court correct interpreted and applied the law to the facts as it found them.]  Plaintiffs and proponents put on both lay (non-expert) and expert witnesses.  The lay witnesses were primarily composed of the plaintiff couples, who testified as to why they wanted to be married, and persons who had been involved in the "Yes on 8" campaign (or ProtectMarriage), who testified regarding their efforts and motivations in opposing same-sex marriage.  The trial judge had earlier explained at trial that he wished to have a full review of the status of gay and lesbians in society and the effects that same-sex marriage could potentially have on homosexual and heterosexual marriages.  Thus, the expert witnesses ran the gamut from history, psychology, human development, economics, social epidemiology, and political science.  The range and amount of testimony provided cannot even be effectively summarized in a space such as this (the opinion was 136 pages long), though I will provide some highlights below.  However, the judge found that plaintiff's witnesses were generally credible in their testimony, and that proponents' experts lacked credibility.  The judge stated his belief that the proponents had generally failed to provide any credible evidence that supported their bare assertions of negative consequences that would result from allowing same-sex marriage.

Plaintiffs' Expert Testimony
The plaintiffs' evidence consisted in part of the following ten points.  Due to the fact that the judge adopted many of the expert's conclusions in his findings of fact, I have identified those findings by number.  Plaintiffs' experts argued that:
(1) marriage in the US has always been a secular (or civic) institution and has undergone a number of changes and transformations over the course of American history (Finding #19);

(2) gays and lesbians are subject to widespread private and public discrimination and stigma, based on negative stereotypes of homosexuals that are without basis in fact (Findings #58, 67, 74-76, 78);

(3) same-sex couples and the state of California (and its cities and counties) have been subject to serious economic harm as a result of Prop 8 (Findings #64-66);

(4) same-sex couples are in all important respects similar to opposite-sex couples (Finding #48);

(5) allowing same-sex marriage would not have adverse effects on opposite-sex marriage (Finding #55);

(6) marriage has important benefits for the couple and any children raised in that marriage (Findings #50, 56);

(7) the stigma on gays and lesbians has negative effects on their mental health;

(8) homosexuality is a personality trait that is not chosen and is not amenable to change through therapy;

(9) children raised by same-sex couples are just as likely to be well-adjusted as children raised by heterosexual couples (Finding #69); and

(10) gays and lesbians do not possess a meaningful degree of political power.

Proponents' Expert Testimony
The proponents did not call many of their expert witnesses as they had originally planned.  Their initial justification for this choice is that the experts feared exposing themselves to risks to their personal safety due to their testimony.  However, after publication of the proceedings was prevented by a Supreme Court intervention, the plaintiffs still refused to call their witnesses.  Plaintiffs offered the previously recorded testimony of two of proponents' experts.  Those experts concluded that "religion lies at the heart of the hostility" against gays and lesbians and there was no evidence that children raised by same-sex couples fared worse than children raised by opposite-sex couples.

The proponents did offer the testimony of two expert witnesses.  One of those witnesses, David Blankenhorn, was the founder and president of the Institute for American Values, a family values think tank.  The court dismissed Blankenhorn's testimony for his lack of qualifications or support for his conclusions.  He lacked formal training in the relevant fields, had no peer-reviewed publications, and his conclusions were not produced using reliable methods (i.e. scientific methods).  Blankenhorn had testified that the state had a interest in preserving opposite-sex marriage in order to regulate the bearing and raising of children.  This was important because children raised by married, biological parents do better than children in other environments.  However, the court found that the evidence he used to arrive at this conclusion only compared married, biological parents with other living situations that were not the equivalent of married same-sex parents (e.g. single parents, step families).  Blankenhorn also testified that three universal rules that governed marriage: that it was between a man and a woman, that only two spouses were involved, and that sex was involved. Finally, Blankenhorn testified that recognizing same-sex marriage would lead to the "deinstitutionalization" of marriage, which he defined as out-of-wedlock marriage, non-marital cohabitation, rising divorce rates, etc.  The court found that he produced no credible evidence to support these conclusions.  Besides the general lack of reliability in this opinions, the court found that Blankenhorn's testimony contradicted his own opinions in several respects.  Proponent's second expert, Kenneth Miller, is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.  The purpose of Miller's testimony was to show that gays and lesbians enjoyed significant political power.  The court found that, because Miller had failed to consider key evidence and was not familiar with gay and lesbian politics, his testimony should be discounted.  The court further found that Miller's previous writings contradicted his testimony as a witness for the proponents.

Findings of Fact
In addition to those findings of fact listed above under Plaintiff's Expert Testimony, the court made certain other findings of fact on which it based its legal conclusions.  While space does not permit me to do so here, the court identified specific citations to the trial record, including documents and testimony offered by experts for both sides, that supported his findings.  These findings include:
(1) CA, like other states, did not require that couples be willing or able to procreate in order to obtain a marriage license (Finding #21);

(2) Marriage requires free consent of the parties (Finding #23);

(3) Marriage has undergone significant changes in the course of American history, including the elimination of racial restrictions, the elimination of status of women as property of her husband, and the equalization of gender roles in marriage.  These changes have not weakened marriage. (Findings #24-28, 33);

(4) Under current law, marital partners have equal obligations to one another and their dependents (Finding #32)

(5) Marriage is a state recognition with many purposes, including family stability, legitimating children, and establishing support obligations, and is used to provide benefits to certain couples (Findings #34-37);

(6) Marriage is good for the health and material well-being of those involved, including children (Findings #38-41);

(7) Same-sex behavior has a long history, though a separate identity for homosexuals developed in the late 19th century (Finding #42);

(8) Sexual orientation is an enduring pattern of behavior, stable through adulthood, and is a fundamental and distinguishing characteristic of an individual's identity.  It is not a choice and cannot be change through decision or therapy (Findings #43-44, 46);

(9) CA law already allows gays and lesbians to become parents (Finding #49);

(10) Domestic partnership is not equal to marriage, due to different symbolic meanings and benefits, and is inferior to marriage (Findings #52-54);

(11) Prop 8 requires unequal treatment and inferior treatment of same-sex couples vis a vis opposite-sex couples (Findings #59-60);

(12) Prop 8 codifies distinct traditional gender roles in marriage (Finding #61);

(13) Prop 8 does not affect the First Amendment rights of those opposed to same-sex marriage (Finding #62);

(14) Prop 8 does not affect other constitutional rights (Finding #63);

(15) Gender and sexual orientation of parents, r a child's genetic relationship to parents, are not factors in a child's adjustment.  Opposite-sex couples are not required to produce well-adjusted children (Findings #69-73);

(16) Religious beliefs in the sinfulness or inferiority of homosexual relationships are harmful to gays and lesbians (Finding #77); and

(17) The campaign to pass Prop 8 was based on never-articulated and vague fears about homosexuals and stereotypes (Findings #79-80).

[If you have read this far, please return to the top and read the "Conclusions of Law" section.]

01 August 2010

Two "Ticking Time Bombs" - Deficits & Unemployment

Warning: There will be a lot of links in the post below.  I am going for the "full Greenwald."

On Friday evening, my wife asked me what I was planning on doing this weekend.  My reply was "As little as possible."  These days it seems like that is exactly what the GOP has planned to do with existing budget deficits and the unemployment that will handicap the United States for the foreseeable future.

The big upcoming budget fight for the rest of this year, and probably into the next Congress, will be whether, or to what extent, the "Bush tax cuts" ought to be extended.  Good estimates from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget find that a full extension of the tax cuts will add $3.28 trillion to cumulative deficits between 2011 and 2018.  Alternate proposals would include allowing the tax cuts to expire only for those Americans earning more than $250,000 per year but extending them for those making less than that.  As pointed out this morning by William Gale in the Washington Post, the Bush tax cuts are estimated to account for approximately 25% of the budget deficit this year.  That is not a majority, nor likely even a plurality of the budget deficit.  Other large line items contributing to the deficit include the TARP and Recovery Act measures (one-time expenses), and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which will supposedly end sometime in the next ten-year budget window, but who knows?).  These are all on the side of tax expenditures, while the revenue side has certainly been reduced by the reduced taxable income and assets caused by the recession itself. Allowing all tax cuts to expire would have a more helpful effect on the immediate and long-term budget deficit; however, a large portion of the work can be done by allowing higher-income earners to bear the brunt of the increases.  Moreover, since the GOP wants to pretend that nothing was wrong with the Bush tax cuts in the first place, allowing any tax cuts to expire will be difficult politically.  Allowing all of them to expire, particularly in a time fraught with middle-class anxiety, is next to impossible, even if it was desirable.

While swallowing this deficit camel (Note: The idea that tax cuts "pay for themselves" or that they have a stimulative effect far in excess of their ultimate cost to the deficit, I find to be laughable.  At least four prominent conservative economists (as well as just about everybody else who knows anything about the problem), agree with me.), the GOP simultaneously strains at the gnat of additional stimulus (particularly in the form of extended unemployment benefits).  Unemployment benefits, extended even to periods of several years, are not threats to the long-term deficit.  Quite to the contrary, they are among the most effective forms of direct stimulus, as those without jobs are likely to spend nearly every dime they receive as unemployment benefits on basic necessities.  Even if unemployment benefits were a form of pure deficit spending, without any correlating stimulative effect, they would be the right thing to do, as I will explain shortly.  But to insist that a $3 trillion tax expenditure is no problem, while filibustering an extension of unemployment benefits with a cost of $33 billion smacks of a profound lack of seriousness about dealing with deficits.

The extension of unemployment benefits would be a priority of the second order if it were reasonably anticipated that prospects for employment were to improve rapidly in the short- to medium-term.  Such is emphatically NOT the case.  Estimates range anywhere from 5 to 11 years to restore employment to pre-recession levels.  While the long-term deficit is no doubt a ticking time bomb that will need to be tackled with some tough and courageous policies over the next decade and into the future, persistent high unemployment is a crisis RIGHT NOW and into the future.  More (and more targeted) short-term stimulus is one answer, with deficits being handled in the medium- to long-term.  For those of us not personally associated with someone with a long-term unemployment issue, the high numbers of the unemployment can tend to blur into mere statistics.  But the full cost of long-term unemployment is not something that can be appreciated solely on the basis of a GDP figure, deficit numbers, or the monthly U16 report.  The true costs of unemployment are a deterioration in the nation's stock of human capital, in the form of unrealized investments in education, training, etc.  Perhaps this is most profound for youth growing up in homes where one or both parents may be suffering from long-term unemployment.  Lack of savings for education and enriching experiences in one's youth cannot be easily regained once that youth is spent.  That means that the full and true cost of this recession will not be known until 15-25 years from now, when today's youngsters are entering the workforce in full for the first time.  One of the most important governmental priorities in this recession is to support education (i.e. by not forcing state budget cuts in education and teacher layoffs) and put money in the hands of families so that they can make their own investments in human capital.  That is why, aside from any stimulative effect it might have, it is imperative that Congress put the extension of unemployment benefits beyond the reach of short-sighted legislative maneuvers.  Ergo, unemployment benefits should be extended almost indefinitely, or at least until our unemployment figures hit a certain stable and acceptable floor (probably between 5 and 6 percent, 3% being defined as full employment).  At the same time, short-term measures to forestall cuts in education expenditures and further targeted stimulus must be put in place.

There can be no recovery in the broader economy without a recovery in employment as soon as possible.  Consumer spending and tax revenues will not get back to where they need to be until reliable and steady incomes can be put back into the hands of all of America's working populace.  In the meantime, the human cost of unemployment and resulting dislocations is too high to wait for the jobs to come back.

26 July 2010

3rd Annual Faith and Knowledge Conference- Duke/UNC

A Call for Papers

“The Intellectual Prospects for Mormonism”: The Third Biannual Faith and Knowledge Conference for LDS Graduate Students in Religion
Duke University/University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
February 2011

The Faith and Knowledge conference series was established in 2006 to bring together LDS graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines in order to explore the intellectual interactions between religious faith and scholarship. In past conferences, graduate students have been invited to reflect upon aspects of their own personal intellectual reconciliations—or their own failures to do so—between church and academy, and to offer fruitful solutions to fellow students undergoing similar intellectual journeys.

In keeping with these past objectives, we invite graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines (including philosophy, anthropology, sociology, ethics, history, and others) to consider Mormonism’s intellectual prospects. The Latter-day Saints are now a powerful institutional presence on the American scene, but they are not likely to have a significant intellectual presence in the Academy until scholarship and intellectuality are more fully integrated into Mormon life. An inquiry into the intellectual prospects of Mormonism must then address many questions. Such considerations may include, but are not limited to, the following inquiries:

  • How can we describe the changing nature of Mormon thought in the current era?

  • Where are the centers of intellectual creativity among Mormon scholars and thinkers today?

  • Will Mormon theology ever win the respect of other theologians?

  • Can the work of Mormon theologians be of any value to ordinary Latter-day Saints?

  • What theorists are of value in explicating Mormon thought?

  • What is the state of Mormon theorizing about an embodied God? Is it registering with other Christian thinkers?

  • Does Mormonism have anything to say to the world other than “join us?”

  • Are we making any headway on theorizing Mormon praxis?

  • Can ordinary Mormons make their peace with modern biblical scholarship? How can this be accomplished?

  • What is the role of Mormon scholars in integrating scriptural scholarship into Mormon life?

  • How can Mormons combat the “nice people–wacky religion” syndrome?

  • Does inter-faith dialogue dilute or intensify Mormon thought?

  • Why should Mormons participate in theological dialogue with non-Mormons?

  • Is a Mormon background a handicap or a help in getting a job in a non-Mormon institution?

Panelist papers should last approximately 10 minutes. Short proposals (no more than 250 words) should be sent to Ariel Bybee Laughton (ariel.laughton@gmail.com) by October 1, 2010. Presenters will be notified by December 1, 2010. Conference participants will be eligible to apply for financial assistance with travel and lodging expenses.

12 July 2010

A thought experiment on Church statistics

Meaningful statistical information on the LDS Church is notoriously hard to come by, in spite of excellent work being done by Ziff and others here. The Church has its own department for creating and investigating such information, but seems reticent to share that news elsewhere. Other studies by outside third parties are necessarily incomplete, since they are inevitably based on samples, and those samples are generally heavily weighted towards American members of the Church living in the Mormon Corridor.

But instead of simply bemoaning the lack of statistical information, lets take a step in a more positive direction. Name a statistical measure of anything related to the LDS Church that would tell you something that you thought would shed light on the current health and progress of the Church, or would simply scratch some nagging itch in your own mind.

There are only two rules:
1. You do not have to pick a statistic that you know is actually collected in real life (either by the Church or by some other party); however, pick a measure that could conceivably be collected and reported in some kind of comprehensive and accurate way. A bad example of this would be: "I want to know the number of sacrament cups used worldwide each week as a proxy for how many worthy members of the Church attend their Sabbath services." This statistic does not work because it is difficult to see a) how this statistic would be collected, and b) even if it could be, how accurately the statistic would reflect on the purpose of its collection. It would be inconceivable to put an observer in every meeting of the Church each week to see how many people are taking the sacrament. Someone might suggest using instead the number of sacrament cups ordered by each unit. However, I do not know whether all units in the Church worldwide order sacrament cups from the same distributor (probably the Church). Furthermore, even if good information on the orders was available, Church units certainly keep an unused inventory of the cups, so it would be hard to determine how many of them were actually used given that unused cups are probably thrown away each week after the sacrament.

2. Don't pick financial information. Its an arbitrary rule, but a sound one. Beyond the fact that I am not sure that financial or budgetary information qualifies as a statistic, this answer is just a cop-out. We're all curious. We would probably all want to know how much $ the Church has, or how much it spends on BYU, temples, etc. So try thinking a little harder about it.

Answering the question for myself, I would love to see the numbers on the net number of temple marriages contracted each year. To show what I mean by net, I mean only living members of the Church (no proxy sealings counted), and subtract out all divorces by Church members (both civil and temple but only count each divorce once) and any occurrence where a temple-married member has their name removed from the records of the Church. Exclude also any second temple marriages for persons over the age of 50. In my opinion, getting married in the temple is a good proxy for the general spiritual health of the Church membership, especially for the youth. No doubt an imperfect one, but likely the best that would be available. This information could easily be gathered from the Church's records department and would not likely include any investigation outside official Church records. As far as why I made the choices I did on delineating the metric, I think it ought to be clear why sealings for the dead are excluded. I want divorces subtracted because of course, if temple marriage signals the formation of a family (the fundamental unit of the Church...and of society, as Church leaders continuously remind us), then divorce signals the dissolution of that family. Because a dissolution of the sealing bond sometimes occurs some time after a civil divorce is finalized (except possibly in the case of major transgression), and in some circumstances that I am aware of, sealing bonds are not dissolved until the remarriage of one of the partners (usually the female), we need to account for civil divorces. I waffled on counting name removal the same as divorce. Technically speaking the sealing bond should be broken, but if a name is removed for excommunication pursuant to transgression, then it may still be that the family remains together, the transgressor is rebaptized and the sealing "reactivated." In that case, we count both the name removal and the re-sealing, and it comes out a wash. The reason why I exclude second marriages involving members over 50 is that usually these occur when one party to the original marriage dies, but after a great deal of the child rearing is complete. I do not think that it indicates how healthy the Church is spiritually or how well the youth are absorbing the lessons on the importance of temple marriage that an older widow or a widower finds another mate. Thus, a young adult who marries in the temple, but is later divorced from the first spouse or whose first spouses dies, and then remarries soon thereafter to another young adult, gets counted. This is a new family, and one that still reflects the purpose for which the statistic is collected. However, Elder Nelson's recent remarriage following the death of his wife, would not be counted.

So you have now read the above too-long justification for my own choice. Of course, there are literally dozens of statistics I would like to see other than the one described above. What would you choose and why?

06 July 2010

Response to Ebert- Video Games can be Art

Back in April, Roger Ebert, the highly-esteemed Chicago film critic, wrote a post on his blog entitled "Video Games can never be art." I suspect that I do not need to explain the gist of his post. In response, he received over 4500 comments, overwhelmingly in disagreement with Mr. Ebert.

Wisely, last week Mr. Ebert walked back his comments somewhat in his follow-up post "Okay, kids, play on my lawn." He correctly admitted that it was foolish and wrong of him to discount that video games as a medium could never attain the status of Art, given that the future of video games is completely unknown. Furthermore, Mr. Ebert acknowledges that his firsthand experience with modern video games is almost completely non-existent and that "I would never review a movie I had not seen." Well put.

As almost anyone who has seen a Rothko or Jackson Pollock or experienced John Cage's "4'33" for the first time can attest, the question "What is Art?" can be a tricky one to answer. Any attempt to achieve a universally acceptable and effective definition is bound to be unsuccessful.

I have been playing video games since I was about 5 years old, having received the original NES and Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt as a Christmas present. I had the NES, followed by the Super Nintendo, followed by PC games, and most recently have been enjoying the Nintendo Wii. In addition to my own game systems, I have had plenty of experience playing video games on the various XBox, Playstation and Sega systems. I can say that rarely have any of my experiences attained the status of Art, but there are a couple. Various titles in the Final Fantasy series come to mind. Those with more extensive gaming experience, such as Mr. Ebert's other correspondents, can likely name more. And as the genre grows and matures, it undoubtedly will produce Art that qualifies with even the best literature, movies, music, and other visual art currently being produced. (Note that even games that are not Art may contain art, particularly including music. If film scores qualify as art, why can't video game scores?) We need to remember that this medium is less than 50 years old by most counts, and has primarily been the province of the young and relatively uncultured for most of its history. As that changes, and the first generations who truly grew up with household gaming (as well as a well-rounded mix of other cultural experiences) move into the production of games, the medium will mature, grow, and flower.

One of Ebert's chief arguments against video games as Art seems to be that the experience of playing a video game leaves the outcome to be determined by the player and that a video game can be "won" unlike other forms of Art. This is peculiar to the genre, but not fatal to its claim to Art status. In some sense, video game players are collaborators in creating a game. The game as shipped, marketing, and sold in stores can never be Art. It is inert and lifeless. The same can be said of a CD or DVD sitting on the racks at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, no matter what the quality of the music or film embedded on that medium. Nevertheless, unlike a video game, the playback experience of the CD or DVD is fixed at the moment of its recording, as for that matter, is the experience of reading a book. Someone reading this will certainly point out that all experience of Art involves some measure of subjectivity, which is true. We are all conditioned in our response to Art but cultural influences and our own personal history, amongst other factors. But this does not detract from my point, but rather strengthens it. The element of malleability or subjectivity in an experience of Art does not render the object or experience "not Art."

One who plays a video game is filling in the blanks left by the creator. The game as Art is incomplete until played. By the same token of those items discussed above, our previous experiences of playing video games, as well as other education and experience, affects the way that a gamer interacts with the setting and interface provided. The choices of how the blanks may be filled in can be more or less limited, at the discretion of the game creator. For most popular games, the choice is simply die or advance. But for others (and I am thinking of the Fable games for XBox and the Elder Scrolls series for PC), there is a much more choose-your-own-adventure flavor to the storytelling. And at their heart, this is what truly great games (and movies, books, etc.) do-- they tell stories, and allow players to participate in their telling, as if reading the lines of a soliloquy or a choral response to Greek tragedy.

If you want to see a more gung-ho take on the "Video games=Art" argument, watch the video found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww.

Sitting on my shelf is a copy of Tom Bissell's "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" waiting to be picked up. Its probably third in my queue following my current read (an excellent, if lengthy, tome on Teddy Roosevelt and the environment) and Ariel's dissertation. I may have more thoughts on the above following that read, and if so, I may post them here.

30 June 2010

Why I am not watching the Kagan confirmation hearings

Because I am an attorney and because I happen to love constitutional law, one might think that I would be glued to my television this week during the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan to be appointed as a justice on the Supreme Court. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. I will read the daily dispatches in the New York Times and might catch the soundbites on CNN, but I can think of a list longer than my arm of things more worth my time.

As Kagan has herself pointed out, these hearings are "vapid and hollow charade." The Senators are going to repeat partisan talking points that bear little relation to the complexities of constitutional law and the nominee will say just enough to be confirmed but no more. As others have emphasized, these hearings ought to work as a civic event to educate the public regarding constitutional interpretations and the content and progress of our civic freedoms. However, it is hard to see how an environment where both participants are just trying to score points is conducive to educational outcomes. At first glance, this does not appear to signal that the Socratic dialogue between professor and student in a law school would be educationally useful, but having been there myself, I think that most students (and probably most professors) are simply trying not to look stupid or unprepared. However, in the present case, I do not think that anyone believes that Elena Kagan is stupid. From all reports, she seems to have been consciously preparing for this moment her whole life; she is unlikely to screw it up now by saying something risky. And on the other side, I do not think that the Senators will be able to say anything that will convince me that half of them are not complete morons.

McChrystal's Firing

Another unanticipated break from blogging. My ongoing intention has been to post more regular and briefer posts, and in a more timely fashion than I have traditionally been accustomed to. So tonight, I am actually going to start that project and have two posts for your reading pleasure.

Last week, President Obama relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command over American forces in Afghanistan, following revelations from this Rolling Stone article. McChrystal's various disparaging remarks regarding members of the Administration, including the President himself, are well known and do not need to be repeated here.

In the days and hours leading up to the announcement of Gen. McChrystal's "firing" and replacement with Gen. David Petraeus, I felt ambivalent about letting him go. On the one hand, he had clearly committed a misdeed worthy of the punishment he received. The Constitution clearly establishes the principle of civilian control of the military. If one of the privates or captains in Afghanistan had made similar disparaging remarks to a newspaper regarding Gen. McChrystal, he would have been discharged immediately. One simply does not criticize or complain about superior officers to the press or the public. And in this case, the President, as commander-in-chief, is everyone's superior officer. Some may worry that this deprives those who serve in the military of some measure of their First Amendment freedom of speech. Technically that is true, and such deprivation has been accepted as one of the costs of enlisting in the military. However, no one is insisting that Gen. McChrystal must like President Obama and the members of his foreign policy team, or that he cannot criticize them vociferously in private. However, once he stepped over the line by repeating those criticisms to a journalist, he has made himself the focus of and an obstacle to the mission, the ultimate no-no for any soldier, no matter what rank.

On the other hand, I am personally tired of the seeing this pattern: member of political (or military) leadership commits very public and very embarrassing gaffe, he or she is fired or "resigns", we all pretend that the problem is solved. The McChrystal incident is not a perfect illustration of this problem, because the norm which he violated is so well-understood and so dangerous if transgressed. Nevertheless, his criticisms go to the heart of the problems with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-- military leaders (I believe) understand what our political leaders sometimes fail to, that victory, in any form that would be immediately recognizable to Americans is simply not going to happen in these conflicts. On the negative effects that the prolonged state of war is having on our military personnel, I highly recommend this great op-ed by Andrew Bacevich in the Washington Post. The problem in general is that when one of these embarrassing statements or mistakes is made, no serious conversation regarding the merits is generated. The resignation or firing is a purely face-saving move, but one that leaves the government temporarily disrupted and crippled until a suitable replacement can be found. We need to have that conversation about Afghanistan, not to mention 10 or 20 other issues. We ought to be able to rely on journalists to generate this kind of discussion, but they are increasingly unable or unwilling to challenge or diverge from the self-serving narratives that emerge from Washington. And so the disgraced shuffles off into the shadows, only to reemerge shortly thereafter with a new lobbyist position or a generous pension (as in McChrystal's case). Its pointless, if not counterproductive, and we need to find a better way to deal with these types of situations as a government, but more importantly as a public.

11 April 2010

To Those About to Buy a House, We Warn You

Item for Sale: one (1) house. But it is not just a house, of course. Tied up in the physical structure is a complex tangle of myths, aspirations, and obligations. Among the obligations, though certainly not alone in that category, is the thirty-year mortgage that you recently "qualified for." We will come back to that later. The myths and aspirations attached to the house are oh so preciously American. "Owning" (again, we will return to this) your own home carries with it the promise of independence, and after all, isn't independence what generations of American men and women have worked, fought, died, and hoped for? Though most realtors or homebuilders are too polite or discreet to mention such a relationship, this "independence" ought to have its own line item on the good faith estimate attached to the contract. "No more landlords for us," it might say-- this structure is ours to do with as we please. The house, or in more evocative Western parlance, the homestead, is supposed to say something about us as a family, both to others, but perhaps more importantly to ourselves. It says that we are our own masters, that we have toiled on this earth to carve out a little piece of soil, wood, and stone that we can call our own, that we have claimed a piece of our by-golly God-given heritage. It also signals that we are "adults," that we have successfully navigated that most crucial of transitions from children living with their parents, to a twenty-something living alone or with friends in more transient quarters, to a full-fledged and fully-actualized grown-up.

If you were or are fortunate enough to be born into what remains of a middle class in this country, at times it seems that you were handed a certificate shortly after birth which promised you: 1) a college education, 2) fulfilling work, and 3) a house for you, a beautiful or handsome spouse, and your two-point-whatever accomplished and way-above-average children. But the cake is a lie.

As I said before, if you are like nearly everybody out there buying a home and not close to retirement, there will be a significant amount of debt related to the purchase of the home, which will necessitate a mortgage. And while you are signing this contract that promised you the independence of owning your own home (its in those disclosures somewhere), what it resembles more closely is an agreement for a fixed term of servitude. This house will hang around your neck for at least thirty years like, well, a house. While you may tell yourself that you are cleverly storing up value in your home equity, if you are one of the lucky many to have bought a home in the last five years, you are almost certainly allocating about 80-90% of your monthly mortgage payment to interest and escrow. And chances are that any equity you might have already earned has been obliterated in the recent sharp decline in nationwide home values. Thus, should you choose to sell this house, you will not see a dime of this "value," because what you have been paying is basically.......rent. But don't get angry at the banks, or the mortgage brokers, or the realtors. The legally mandated disclosures were all there-- the property taxes, the interest, the insurance, etc. Of course, they never disclosed the repair costs, the higher utility bills, nor the value of your precious time (precious because it is so rare, since an absurd portion of your waking hours are spent toiling at your "fulfilling work" to earn enough to pay that mortgage) spent maintaining and beautifying the home, because that is all part of the dream of the independent American home owner. Thus we trade what likely adds up to decades of our lives, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars above the "value" of the house, and all the forfeited happiness from toil at jobs that we hate and our failure to take time for ourselves to grow and prosper in a non-material sense, in a desperate attempt to hold onto something that will only be "ours" in anything more than the most paltry, technical sense after more than a third of our statistical longevity has passed us by.

So if you already own a home, I am so, so sorry. We bought into the myth-- the one that says that all right-thinking adults have to own a house, and that all other options are necessarily dishonorable and irresponsible.

If you do not own a home, but are thinking about it, run while you still can. Save yourselves.

21 February 2010

The Solution to All Your Prime-Time Television Problems (TM)

I thought I would do something completely different for a change. I'm a little burned out and disappointed with politics right now and most of my thinking and writing on Mormon issues goes into my own Sunday School teaching right now. So this will be something a little lighter, but, sad as it may be, still in the front of my mind.

I watch more TV than I can be proud of. It seems as if I have at least one hour-long show I watch every night of the week, except on Sunday, and most nights it is more like two or three. Of course, the advent of the DVR has made it both easier and harder to deal with this level of viewership. I am not required to schedule my life around my favorite shows and can theoretically watch an hour-long show in 40 minutes (or a half-hour show in 20, unless they are on BBC America or PBS), which makes a difference when you are watching two or three shows a night. However, those same advantages make it possible to watch two or three shows a night and still feel like there is time left over to do something else.

Even though I really do love some of these shows, from time to time I find myself wishing that they would come to some conclusion or simply be cancelled, especially those that are going on into their fifth or sixth season or beyond. Plus, I have the frustration that most of us have shared of having a really beloved program cancelled prematurely, while there was still plenty of good storytelling to be done (see Kings or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). How do we correct this imbalance and frankly, cosmic injustice? I present to you The Solution to All Your Prime-Time Television Problems (TM)*

1. No reality TV. None. This needs absolutely no explanation.

2. All new shows will be limited to four seasons. This is the linchpin of my plan. Some shows just overstay their welcome (e.g. ER, which kids were watching when I was in high school. I am now almost 30). Putting a cap on the number of seasons focuses the writers and producers on storytelling. Beginning. Middle. End. Not Beginning...Middle...Middle...Middle...uh oh we just got canceled. (e.g. Heroes). What show could not put together a complete, complex story arc within four seasons of 18-24 episodes a piece? I could probably film all the good parts of the Bible (OT and NT) in 96 hour-long episodes. That ends up being the length of about 48 feature films or almost more than you could watch if you watched one two-hour movie every week for a year. You think Lost really needed more than four seasons to tell its whole story? Three words: Nikki and Paolo. Case closed. I cannot think of a single show that has improved in its fifth, sixth, etc. season over what it was doing in its first or second. The fifth or sixth season is also prime time for the original regular (and beloved) characters to start jumping ship for the movies, another show, etc. After that, its all downhill. (e.g. X-files)

2a. All currently running shows will be grandfathered in by allowing them two seasons beyond their current one (if necessary). In my recent experience, early notification of cancellation has saved at least two shows-- Lost and Battlestar Galactica, with a possible third being Alias. Anyone who watched these shows can tell you that in the late second and third season, these shows really started to wander. They had lost their original trajectory or raison d'etre. And everybody knew it. When the producers of Lost announced that they would wrap the show up in two more seasons, the quality of the late fourth season immediately picked up. Same with BSG. The show had started to wander from the goal (Earth). While still executing science fiction on a high level, watching began to tax one's patience. The final season brought the show home (literally and figuratively), with the possible exception of that mess of an ending. Bottom line: if Lost can gather its many scattered threads in two seasons, anybody can.

2b. (Almost) all shows will be guaranteed two seasons. Four seasons is plenty to tell a great story. But some stories do not deserve to be told. Nevertheless, everybody has their favorites, even if the ratings don't justify keeping a show on for another two years. Two seasons will not be enough to satisfy some folks, but letting producers know that two seasons is their initial threshold will drive them to build and orient the story towards a possible initial deadline.

2c. The first sentence of 2b says "almost," because television executives will be allowed to cancel some truly abominable shows after one complete season. These opportunities are limited. A network gets three each season (one for every two nights of prime-time programming). A network also gets one chance to pull the plug on a show that just does not work at all before the initial season is even up.

2d. Under the above system, renewal for a second season is considered automatic as a default option until a network plays one of its four possible cancellation cards. Once a show is renewed during the second season, it can either be renewed for one or two additional seasons. The choice between one or two additional seasons is locked-in and irrevocable once made. All renewal decisions must be made before the midpoint of the season, allowing those shows that are not being picked up for any additional seasons to bring their story to a proper close. Some may think that this system will lead all executives to go for the one-season renewal every time, just to avoid the risk. This would be true, except....

2e. Like athletes, shows that are offered one season at their "home" network may opt to take a contract with another network for two seasons. As a concession, the home network can insist on the show skipping one season (coming back to that later) and not erring on its new network until the subsequent season.

What does this mean for the decision-making of a TV exec and the viewing possibilities of your average TV consumer? Knowing that the network will be locked in with almost every show (with the possible exception of four) for two seasons, judgment and decision-making will be front-loaded. Producers and writers will have to offer more up-front for networks to take a chance on their shows. Ultimately, because of costs, this means that less pilots will be produced and less shows will be given that chance to air for the first time each season, thereby decreasing the choices available to consumers. However, in the long run, this will likely mean that more shows will get the chance to air, since shows that are camping on prime timeslots for six or seven years will be cleared off the schedule promptly.

3. The year will be divided into three TV seasons: fall (beginning in August), spring (beginning in January), and summer (beginning in May/June). Shows on the major networks will either be fall or spring shows, but cannot air during both. Shows that transfer from one network to another may switch seasons, thus if a show transfers from ABC to NBC but ABC keeps it off the air for one season (fall), it may begin airing in either the spring season or the following fall season. Summer is reserved for shows on basic cable (we'll call it the Mad Men or My Boys season), vacations without your DVR, catching up on your backlog of reading, and going to the movies. Basic cable shows can also air during the fall or spring seasons. The institution of two separate and independent television seasons also adds to the total number of possible shows that can be aired by each network, also increasing viewer choice.

3a. Shows will air weekly (or more often) and consecutively. There will be no skipping weeks except for major sporting events (Olympics, World Series, March Madness) and major political happenings (SOTU, Election Night, etc.).

4. For those of you doing the math at home, you are probably thinking, "if a show has to start in August and end by the beginning of January, (or start in January and end sometime in May or June), how will you fit a 24-episode season into only 20 weeks or less?" Answer- you won't. Television seasons should shorter. A season of 24 (which is one of my favorites) feels interminable at this point. Furthermore, it only contains about 12-16 good episodes. Anyone who doubts me should go back and watch season 1, where Jack's wife Terri loses her memory and wanders around for three or four episodes. The rest is just filler. Part of what makes TV seasons seem so long is that airing 20-24 episodes, along with skipping five or six weeks (or more) along the way, means that shows last over half the year. That is a pretty heavy demand on a thread of your attention for a medium that is not known for inducing improvements in attention spans. I cannot sustain my attention on a book that I am reading in bits and pieces for longer than a month. So TV seasons will be anywhere between 16-18 episodes, which builds in some flexibility for starting later than August 1st, or for the aforementioned major sporting events.

5. Now for those of you who can still do math after my fourth point, you might be thinking "I thought he promised us 96 hours in four seasons? Now it sounds more like 72 hours, which is about three seasons worth of episodes." You got me. That was a dishonest "hook" to get you to read the rest of the post. Welcome to television.

* Before someone brings this up in the very first comment, I want to point out that I am well aware that creative issues are not the only, nor even the chief driver of what gets put on television. Advertising and network politics (hi, Jay Leno, didn't see you standing there) are more powerful influences. I openly admit that my scheme is a pipe dream and could never possibly be adopted. But tell me I'm wrong.