Sep 07 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – The Second Problem With the Way Things Are: Bad Voters

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politics,rightsJames @ 8:20 am

Last post we talked about problems with our politicians, but most voters aren’t any better. In fact, they’re often worse. Most politicians at least know something about the major issues of the day; most voters don’t.

Economists say that voters’ ignorance is rational: because each persons’ vote has such a small marginal impact on an election result, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time learning about the candidates or issues. What makes sense for each voter to do on an individual level, though, has disastrous consequences in the aggregate. The result is collective stupidity.

And rational ignorance isn’t the only problem—natural ignorance is too. Some people are dumber than others, yet everyone’s vote counts the same. Many good, sensible policies can’t be enacted because ignorant voters misunderstand them and oppose them on spurious grounds, often because the media and the entertainment industry have warped popular perceptions about what is right and true. Elected representatives thus sometimes can’t do what makes the most sense because ignorant constituents will vote them out of office if they do.

Surveys since the 1950s have consistently shown that most Anericans are poorly informed about basic, important civic facts about our country, government, and political situation. A majority of Americans were unable to answer sixty percent of such basic questions. Astoundingly, a majority of Americans didn’t know the answers to questions about

definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, or the bill of rights; knowledge of many individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of president or governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.*

Defenders of our current system may ask, isn’t having a republican form of government designed to solve this problem? We elect representatives who can inform themselves about the issues and vote for what would be best for us, so what difference does it make if voters are ill-informed? A lot, actually. How can an ill-informed citizen know how to pick the best representative in the first place? Indeed, research shows that people’s

political knowledge seems to increase citizens’ ability to consistently connect their policy views to their evaluations of public officials and political parties, as well as to their political behavior. For example, more-informed citizens are more likely to identify with the political party, approve of the performance of office holders, and vote for candidates whose policy stands are most consistent with their own views.**

Moreover, the better-informed demonsttate good citizenship beyond just choosing the optimal candidate or political party. Professor Michael X. Delli Carpini explained that

the larger literature strongly suggeststhat informed citizens are “better” citizens in a number of ways. Specifically, research has found that more-informed citizens are more accepting of democratic norms such as political tolerance; are more efficacious about politics; are more likely to be interested in, follow, and discuss politics; and are more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways, including voting, working for a political party,and attending local community meetings. Research also suggests that more-informed citizens are more likely to have opinions about the pressing issues of the day, are more likely to hold stable
opinions over time, are more likely to hold opinions that are ideologically consistent with each other, and are less likely to change their opinions in the face of new but tangential or misleading information but more likely to change in the face of new relevant or compelling information.***

Beyond rational ignorance and basic stupidity, other voters vote against the public welfare act not out of ignorance, but out of naked self-interest, voting for benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens and future generations. The Baby Boomers have turned this into an art form.

To fix our system, we need voters who are informed, engaged, and public-spirited, rather than ignorant, apathetic, and selfish.

*Michael X. Delli Carpini, “An overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics,” in M. S. McKinney, L. L. Kaid, D. G. Bystrom,  and D. B. Carlin (Eds.), Communicating politics: Engaging the public in democratic life, pp. 29-30, http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/53

**Same, p. 35 (citations omitted).

*** Same (citations omitted).


Jul 14 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – Introduction

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politicsJames @ 10:45 pm

Many of us feel like something is going wrong. We feel a deep and growing unease we are moving in the wrong direction, that we’re becoming strangers in our own country. This series of blog posts is an extended essay that explains what is going wrong in the United States and what we can do about it.

But first you must realize that the solution won’t come from going back to the way things were. The past is behind us. Things will never be the way they used to be. But we can learn from the past. We can adapt and take from what worked before to make new solutions that fit our present circumstances.

As this series progresses, I may tweak my planned structure a bit, but roughly speaking it will start with a series of 12 posts each dealing with one of our current problems, followed by 12 more posts giving solutions. Finally, there will be some concluding posts discussing a few overlapping ways of implementing the solutions. When the series is all done, I’ll revise and compile it into a short book of about 100 pages.

It may be surprising that a written work about how to solve the most pressing political problems of our day wouldn’t be longer. But, more often than not, correct explanations and solutions are concise. Occam was on to something. And brevity has the added benefit of making this work more accessible and widely read. I provide footnotes for readers who want to explore these ideas in greater depth. If needed, and time permitting, I may follow up with a longer, more academic book that explores these ideas in more detail.

In this essay series, I am frequently critical of various institutions and actors in our political system. My intent is not to single out specific individuals who work within that system for criticism. In fact, I have worked in, or worked closely with people in, all three branches of government. The vast majority are decent, honorable people trying to do the right thing, as they see it. They are no different from the rest of us, and most of us would act the same way if we were in their position. The problem with our current system is not that it is run by bad people, but that the system has serious flaws that bring out the worst in us and encourage counterproductive behavior. The problem is not some nefarious cabal or conspiracy undermining our country, but rather that the incentives in our system lead to pathological results, in spite of all the good people working within it.

This essay might give the impression that I believe our government is terrible and irredeemably broken. On the contrary, our system is quite good. I feel lucky to have been born an American. I think we have one of, if not the best, systems of government in the world. If you look at the full scope of human history, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better time or place to live than the United States in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to make it better. It is not wrong to strive for improvement. Sometimes improvement for everyone only comes when the best strive for better. We have a long traditon of this in the United States. In colonial times, our ancestors enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the entire world, better than those in England and most other countries.* Even taxes were lower in the 13 Colonies than they were in England. In 1765, per capita tax burdens in the American colonies were 25 to 50 times lower than they were in Great Britain and 6.5 to 13 times lower than they were in Ireland.** Taxes were seven times higher for Americans after independence than they had been under the British.***

From a purely economic perspective, taxation without representation was actually working pretty well for the colonists. But, we are not rational economic robots, seeking to maximize our prosperity at the expense of all our principles, and neither were the Colonists.  Things were good in the colonies, economically speaking, but the political system was unfair and rigged against them—it was taking away more and more of their power to govern their own affairs and transferring it to unaccountable elites in far-off London.

The system was unfair and could have been—should have been—better, so our ancestors fought to make it so. As one of the Minutemen who fought at the first battle at Lexington said, the colonists didn’t fight because of taxes or repression but because “we always had governed ourselves and always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”*** The colonists fought to keep their right to govern themselves, because the British had been trying to take it away. And what they did set in motion a revolution in governance across the world. Ever since, the government they fought to establish has been an example to the world showing the way to freedom and prosperity. Let us seek to set that example for the world once again.

The next post will discuss the first problem with our system, a bad way of selecting our politicians.

* Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History: from Colonial Times to 1940, 2d ed., 1994, p. 50 (“[C]olonists in 1775 enjoyed a . . . standard of living . . . [that] made them among the richest in the world at the time . . . . This is borne out in the estimates of the height of Americans fighting in the French and Indian War [often used by econonic historians as a proxy for economic well being, given the relationship of diet to height]. At five feet eight inches, colonists were much taller than those in lower classes who had stayed behind in England rather than risk all in a transatlantic adventure, suggesting few, if any, serious dietary and nutritional deficiencies.” Americans have always been willing to take risks to improve their lot in life, even since the beginning.)

**Atack and Passell, p. 68

***Stanley Lebergott, The Americans, 1984, p. 40

**** As quoted in Lebergott, p. 39.


Jun 20 2016

Re-Religionization: Secularization Can’t Stop Human Nature

Category: books,cosmology,Evolution,parenting,religion,scienceJames @ 2:35 pm

Summary: Religiosity is an inescapable part of human nature. Secularization won’t—can’t—overcome it. Instead, the growing trend of secularization has just led those professing no religion to express their innate religious natures in sub-optimal, ill-thought-out, ad hoc ways. My book, The Triple Path, offers a better alternative that integrates our modern scientific understanding of the world with the wisdom of the world’s great religions.

I just finished reading Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine Bell. It is an academic work surveying the field of ritual studies, describing the role rituals play in human existence, and discussing the various types of rituals. I found particularly interesting this passage analyzing the causes and consequences of secularization in society:

Ritual-Catherin-Bell

“A more moderate position suggests that secularization is neither a linear developmental process that spells the demise of religion nor a mere interpretive bias on the part of Western scholars. Rather, it can be seen as a type of self-limiting process at work in all ongoing religious systems both ancient and modern. It is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation. As such, secularism may result from some critical degree of contact with different cultures—afforded by travel, conquest, immigration, or competition with neighbors for access to limited resources. If the exposure to plurality—that is, to other value systems and alternative forms of social organization—is intense and sustained or occurs at times of internal social chaos, it can begin to undermine the coherent sense of a unifying order that underlies a traditional society. Some people opt for new and foreign ways of doing things, especially if they are not the ones benefiting from the old ways. People have choices they never had before, whether they want them or not. The mere existence of choices among ways of thinking and acting relativizes what was once deemed absolute, raises questions, necessitates decisions, and promotes experimentation. In this context, some groups become more defensive of tradition, attempting to shun all new options while preserving the old without any change whatsoever. They may even attempt to ignore or retreat from the world around them. Yet older customs strictly maintained in the face of change do not function the way they used to, when they never needed to be asserted and defended. As a society tries to hold together increasingly diverse points of view, one effect is the institutional differentiation that comes with secularism. For example, as Catholics and Jews moved into small, traditionally Protestant New England towns and claimed their rights as full citizens, the explicit and implicit role of Protestantism in the fabric of the town’s social and economic activities was forced to retreat. What was a loss for some was a gain for others. As a result there is a shift of religion from the public and communal sphere to the private and personal, leaving some institutions shorn of all involvement in religion, while others become more explicitly the bastion of religious practice, values, and even public outreach and political lobbying….[A] view of secularism as a theory of institutional differentiation precipitated by the force of pluralism has come to dominate, in part because it recognizes that religion does not die out in secular cultures. On the contrary, in the form of autonomous institutions, religion may have a much sharper profile, it may demand more personal commitment, and it may even exercise more single-minded influence on other institutions.”

Secularization doesn’t mean the end of religion, as some fear. But it does create winners and losers and changes the nature of religion and its role in society.

Jefferson_Bible

The key phrase in the passage is that secularization “is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation.” The Second Great Awakening is a great example of this—America’s Founding Fathers were mostly Deists who disbelieved in many parts of Christianity and weren’t big on organized religion. But the next generation after them brought the Second Great Awakening, a period of great religious fervor and religious innovation. Something similar will happen in response to the current trend of secularization.

Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists point to cultural universals that are found in every human culture, and which appear to be an innate part of human nature (and thus a part of nature rather than nurture). For example, in every culture on Earth, humans speak languages to communicate and use personal names to identify themselves. Religion is another one of those cultural universals. It is found in every human society on earth.

The current trend of secularization won’t change human nature and eliminate religion, just like if a group decided to give up using language it wouldn’t eliminate language in future generations. If a group did that, refusing to teach language to their children, the kids would end up inventing their own language. In fact, this has happened among deaf children growing up in countries where a sign language wasn’t taught—when deaf children were brought together in an institution for the deaf, even though no one taught any language to them, they naturally and spontaneously invented their own sign language to be able to communicate with each other. Similar things happen when kids who speak different languages are all brought together (say, because their parents are migrant workers)—they invent a new creole language to communicate.

Something similar is inevitable with religion. Even with the growing trend of secularization, even if parents refuse to teach any religion to their kids, religiosity and religion will still continue in some form. It may be transformed (either in content or in its role in society), but you can’t change human nature.

It hasn’t even taken one generation for this process of re-religionization of secular people to already start happening. Among the “nones” who claim no religious affiliation, you can see a lot of quasi-religious behaviors about taboos and orthodoxies and sacralization of values. This haphazard, unconscious re-religionization of their lives often leads to suboptimal results. More often than not, they invent bizarre values to make sacred and barren orthodoxies devoid of much content and that fail to provide any deep, long-lasting meaning to their lives.

On the other hand, my book—The Triple Path—methodically and consciously sifts out the best parts of the world’s religions and puts them together into something new that provides a coherent, credible response to the secularizing pressures of our modern age, something that can allow religion to thrive again in our modern era. It’s a free download. Go read it.Front cover_smallest-EBOOK


Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.


Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (available in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, or mobi format).


Dec 27 2012

A Christmas Carol

Category: booksJames @ 9:41 pm

During the Christmas season, I’ve been reading the Illustrated Classics version of A Christmas Carol with my young preschool-aged son. We’ve both been enjoying it (he likes that it’s a bit spooky because it has ghosts in the story), I very much like the message of charity and love of the story. But something has hit me this time around that I dislike with the story that I’ve never noticed before.

On the surface, the book is supposed to be teaching about having charity and universal love for all, but the spirits of Christmas who visit Scrooge do not exemplify the values they are supposedly teaching. Morally, Jacob Marley and Ebeneezer Scrooge are equivalent–they were partners in the same business and were similarly stingy and uncaring about their fellow man.

After he’s been dead for seven years, Jacob Marley comes back to warn Scrooge and introduce the visits of the other three spirits. Scrooge gets a supernatural intervention that gives a him second chance. Scrooge gains redemption and avoids eternal punishment. 

But what about Jacob Marley’s eternal destiny? When he died, he was doomed to roam the earth in chains, suffering in constant misery for the mistakes of his life. Why did Scrooge get a second chance but not Marley? The only reason Scrooge changed his ways and Marley didn’t was because Scrooge got a supernatural visit from the spirits while he was alive and Marley didn’t. Weren’t the spirits supposed to be teaching Scrooge to turn to a life of charity, love, and compassion? They didn’t seem to be exemplifying those attributes with Marley. Just like Scrooge ignored those who needed help, the spirits ignored Marley.

In fact, it seems that, in some ways, Marley is the most charitable character in the book. Marley’s ghost says to Scrooge: “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” Marley was thus the one who sought out Scrooge’s redemption. Apparently, the Christmas spirits would have ignored Scrooge if it weren’t for Marley. (The same passage also implies that this act is part of Marley’s pennance, so maybe in the moral universe of A Christmas Carol has some measure of fairness, since it is perhaps implied there will ultimately be redemption for Marley as well as Scrooge.)

So, this New Year’s Eve, raise a glass for good old Marley who, even though he was denied the same chance at redemption that Scrooge got, still came to learn charity on his own and sought out Scrooge’s redemption.


Oct 20 2011

Let’s go visit the planets!

Category: books,parenting,scienceJames @ 5:45 pm
Let's go visit the planets!

Let's go visit the planets!

I’ve finished my very first children’s book, and it is now available for sale. I wanted to write a book about astronomy that had good rhymes my 2 year old son would enjoy. The result is my first book, “Let’s go visit the planets.”

You can download a PDF version here. A high-quality, full color, soft cover copy of the book costs $8 plus shipping, available here.