Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What do I need?

There's a game going around on the internet. You google your name, in conjunction with "needs" and relate what the world wide web says you need. Apparently, in no particular order, here are a few of the things "Larry needs."
  1. Larry needs a lifetime supply of calcium supplement.
  2. Larry needs a beating.
  3. Larry needs to find several women. (I'm afraid this is from the game, "Leisure Suit Larry.")
  4. Larry needs computer help.
  5. Larry needs to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.
  6. Larry needs dental surgery and a somewhat complicated neuter before he can be placed in a permanent home. (please, please, please be about a dog!)
  7. Larry needs love, too.
  8. Larry needs some financial help.
  9. Larry needs to get in shape. (Boy, do I!)
  10. Larry needs to stick to stand-up comedy. (this would be the Cable Guy)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Basic Civics: The Electoral College

On the way home from work today, I heard a few minutes of the Laura Ingraham show; she's a conservative talk-show host who has replaced Dave Ramsey's financial show on my local AM station (full disclosure: I prefer Dave). She was interviewing someone on the still-far-off 2008 election, and was pointing out how likely it is that Hillary Clinton will be our next President. Although I can't say I am very happy about that, it makes good math sense. As I'm in the process of writing my final exam, and as there are a couple of questions on it about the electoral college, here's a brief synopsis for those who haven't had a civics class in a while.

Contrary to popular belief, getting the most votes won't make you President. The magic number is a majority of electoral votes. Every state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its number of senators (always 2) plus its number of congressional representatives (from 1 in sparsely-populated states like Wyoming up to 53 in California). If you win the popular vote by even a one-vote plurality in a state, you pretty much get all those electoral votes. With 100 senators and 435 congressional districts, that makes 535 total votes, plus the 23rd amendment gave Washington, DC 3 votes to equal the smallest state. So that's 538. Half of 538 is 269, and a majority is 270. So if you get 270 electoral votes, you win. Simple enough!

But there's more--in a 3-or-more-way race, you can win the electoral vote without winning half the popular vote. A plurality still counts. Further, about 40% of the population tends to vote Democrat, about 40% Republican, and the other 20% or so are generally in play. That's why our biggest popular-vote landslides are always around the magic 60% mark. So it's possible, when a party is not united (like when two Democrats faced Lincoln in 1860, or Teddy Roosevelt took votes away from Taft in 1912, or a Ross Perot steals votes from George H.W. Bush in 1992), the other guy (Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Clinton, respectively) can pick up the electoral majority while only winning around 40% of the popular vote.

It's even better than that. Four times in our history, the guy with the second-most overall popular votes has still won the electoral vote (in 1824, 1876, 1888, and most recently in 2000--and, trivia time: 3 of the 4 had a father or grandfather who had also been President--post a comment if you know who didn't). But that makes sense. The electoral college measures breadth of support across all the states instead of depth of support in just a few. If you can imagine someone winning California by a million votes, but losing each of the other 49 states by maybe 10,000 each, you can see how it's supposed to work--the winner of 49 states deserves more to be President, even though he or she "lost" the popular vote by half a million.

But why does all this mean we're looking at Bush-Clinton-Bush-CLINTON? Demographics. If you look at the map of the 2000 election county-by-county, George W. Bush painted the whole map bright red. But there were small patches of intense Al Gore blue along both coasts, up and down the Mississippi River, and in big urban areas. Yet Gore won more popular votes, and the electoral college came down to 600 votes in Florida. Urban voters, who tend to be younger, more often single, more often from minority backgrounds, socially more liberal--they break far more heavily Democrat than "red states" do Republican. And they are much more densely populated than much larger swaths of the country. So New York City dominates NY state politics. "Blue" LA, San Francisco, and other cities dominate the rest of "red" California. And so it goes across the country.

If you look at the 2004 map, it's hard to pick out any state John Kerry won that Hillary Clinton (or Barack Obama) would expect to lose. And let's not forget, Kerry ran a woeful campaign against an incumbent President, long before the Iraq war began to sour like it has recently. Add to that the fact that much of the "red state" base is less-than-in-love with the GOP frontrunners. I've already alluded to the fact that I won't be happy with Giuliani. Now that the immigration bill has hit the fan, McCain is hemmoraging base voters even worse than he was before. And Romney has yet to break out of third place behind those two. If a party can't even get all of their base, they can't win the electoral college.

Of course, there's lots of time between now and then--many GOP'ers think that a Fred Thompson candidacy might change the calculus, plus provide crossover potential to pick up some of that elusive 20% in the middle. Others think that this immigration bill might upset the apple-cart. And of course, as Dewey proved in 1948, the guy who is "guaranteed" to win can still be upset (by my favorite Democrat, Harry S Truman, who saw his party split three ways and still won). But if you're among those who says, "Hillary can't possibly win," think again.

Less Serious Stuff

Teaching in a school you once attended has its benefits. It's very cool to be coach of team on which I once held a record, to tell stories of the old days, and to have a de facto seniority of 20+ years in spite of only spending 8 years on the job. But there is a price to be paid. The yearbooks just came out, and some enterprising student editor thought it might be nice to post my old school picture. From 7th grade. 'Nuff said.

Immigration Redux

Just a quick point of clarification, and one which I am sure is not original with me: nobody I know is saying we should round up, deport, prosecute, execute, imprison, flay, or even taunt the 12-20 million illegals in this country. Indeed, why should we do anything at all? They chose to come here illegally (translation: they broke the law, on purpose). So if that means they live "in the shadows" and don't get every last benefit that goes along with genuine immigrants (translation: those who played by the rules and followed the law), so what? If they want to change their status, they can get in line behind all the folks who did it right to begin with. My solution (although again, it's not just mine) is to change the way we hire and police the employment side so that some of the very good economic incentives to come here illegally (or stay here illegally) dry up. But enforcing the current laws on the books would be nice, and whether you call it amnesty or something else, giving a de facto green card to those who have broken the law only undermines the role of law in this country. Oh, and so long as I'm rolling, what's the big darned rush to pass this monstrosity? Back in the original days of the Brady Bill (before instant internet checks), a law-abiding citizen had to wait at least 7 days to buy a handgun. Why is it somehow wise now to rush through an immigration law that affects tens of millions of people in a weekend? Seems to me that when the salesman is this hot to close the deal in a hurry, that's all the more reason to read the fine print.

Friday, May 18, 2007

One Quick Note

My workplace is toying with a new filtering software that blocks all blog access (except today... why, I don't know). At home, the antique computer I use has not allowed me to sign in to Google blogger for weeks (again, I don't know why). So there's no guarantee whether I'll be able to post or even comment for a while. So if it seems I'm ignoring you, it's not intentional.

Immigration Reform

The big thing in the news these last couple of days are the new "comprehensive immigration reform" bill just passed. Lots to look at--the text of the actual bill runs to 1000+ pages (wonder if any actual congressman has really read the whole thing? That would be like knocking out Harry Potter #2 & 3 in a weekend, only without all the interesting parts--and there's no shorter movie version). Still, I think the whole reform thing misses the main point. We are all so concerned with what to do about the 12 (some say 20) million illegals currently here... we keep on saying "what are you going to do, deport them all? Break up families?" But let's pretend that we could wave a magic wand and make all those multiple millions disappear--whether amnesty, they all go home voluntarily, or any other solution you want to imagine. The first question I want answered is, "what do you do about the NEXT one (or million, or 20 million)?" Nothing I have seen so far indicates to me that even if we give all of our current illegals amnesty (sure, it's a "Z Visa"), without genuine border enforcement, we just have the same problem again pretty soon (as we learned with the almost identical 1986 deal). And I don't want to be mean to the illegal aliens themselves--let's stick it to the people who exploit them. Plain and simple, many businesses hire illegals so they can pay them less, and on top of that, they will quite often not even withhold taxes and issue a 1099 form at the end of the year. Bull-hokum, I say. If those employers are so sure their workers are legal, let them withhold taxes, pay half their FICA, and then suddenly hiring an American looks a lot more attractive. If they are not sure, don't hire 'em. Let's hammer those who knowingly hire, rent to, school, or otherwise provide non life-saving medical services to illegals. If this were to happen, the services would dry up, and simple supply and demand would take care of a significant portion of the problem. But so long as the substantial benefits of sneaking into this country so significantly outweigh the almost non-existent potential negative consequences, we deserve whatever we get.

But wait, you may say... what about the "jobs Americans won't do?" Simple. They'll do 'em if they pay enough. That, of course, means that houses, fruit, and many other items will cost more as those labor costs are passed on to consumers. So what? Wal-Mart could charge me less if they didn't have to pay minimum wage, but we won't let them do it--it wouldn't be FAIR and LEGAL. What's the doggone difference? The current business climate reminds me of an old joke about SEC football from years ago--"if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." Our system cannot reward law-breaking and expect the laws to mean anything.

Or, there's an option number two: open the borders and not have these silly laws. Of course, there are consequences there, too. I would expect my lawmakers to vote against such a proposal. But there is no courage in saying, "let's pass a law and then ignore it."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Friends and Family

How about something a little less deep and controversial than we've had this past week--a dissertation on old friends. I called my best friend from high school yesterday; it was his 38th birthday. We haven't talked in a couple of years, and that's pretty sad. From the middle of 5th grade through the day he was best man at my wedding, there was no question that where you saw one of us, you'd see the other. Then we went to different colleges, our lives took different directions, and now we only make contact occasionally. Same thing with my college roommates--we shared the best apartment at USC and had the time of our lives. The four (really five, if you count Andy, who did everything at our place except sleep) of us took turns being in each other's weddings, and I never dreamed there would come a time when we were not close. Yet I only see one of them even annually, and the others just exchange Christmas cards (if that). What happened?

Partly, I suppose, is the stages of life we have gone through. I got married younger and had kids younger than most. I was "old" by most of my friends' standards at 25. It is telling that the one college roomie I keep in touch with has children the same age as my youngest two. Part is geography--we just moved to different towns and got caught up in life. Part is economics--I became a schoolteacher, they (for the most part) became doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. Part of it is values--I didn't become a serious Christian until my first child was on the way. To a certain extent, it's like the old "bait and switch" sales technique--not that any of my old friends were ever overtly hostile to faith, but for me to suddenly have vaules completely centered around a topic that wasn't even on the radar when we were in school is almost like asking them to accept a brand new guy as a friend. There are consequences to trying to lead a genuinely transformed life.

The more I think about the "old" friends, and as much as I hope that some of the "newer" friends I have now never grow apart (and that's less likely, I think, because there's a lot less dramatic "growing up" to do and more gradual "growing old" at this stage), the happier I am that some of my dearest friends now are family. It tickles me to no end that my wife's brother, whose tenth birthday party I attended, is now in his 30's, and a great friend of mine. It helps that he's a committed Christian, and helps even more that he's married now (and his wife is a genuine friend, too). I have already blogged about my long friendship with my other brother-in-law, who was my running buddy long before he ever dated my sister. But the coolest thing is that I have had the opportunity to have my sister as a friend. Just as I grew apart from some friends, it seems that the two of us have grown together. We got married (her to a friend of mine, me to a friend of hers) at nearly the same time, had kids about the same age, and both became committed Christians at around the same time. We stayed in the same town and wound up in roughly the same economic situation. We didn't even really like each other that much as children or teens, but time has a way of smoothing things out. "Her" music that I hated to hear come through the walls (Def Leppard, btw) is now something I smile when I hear it on VH-1. And the older we get, the more we discover how deep (and polluted) our gene pool must be--from the same goofy smile, to a very similar sense of humor, to an affection for straight desks and DayTimers (although, anyone who knows us will tell you I'm merely anal, while she's psycho). On a day when I am struck by how fleeting even the best of relationships can be, it is rather comforting to know that some folks are forever. As an aside, if anybody who reads this blog wants to "meet" my sister--the link to "Lorifitz" on the right side of this page is her (I drove first, but she blogged first).

Friday, May 11, 2007

First Principles

This thread kinda jumps off from the one on abortion. I have also touched on this in my long-ago series on poverty. It's about the conflict between being a free-thinking, tolerant, etc. American academic, and at the same time being a fundamentalist Christian.

Let me begin by quoting CS Lewis: "Christianity, if true, is of the utmost importance in the world. If untrue, it is of no importance. But the one thing it cannot be is moderately important." I believe, with every fiber of my being, that Christianity IS TRUE. Therefore, it follows that this belief trumps everything else.

However, I recognize (and value) that ours is a nation without a state religion, that we have freedom of (or even from) religion, and that a large and growing portion of our population, all equal in the eyes of the law to me, either do not agree that Christianity is true, or at the very least pay lip service to Christian beliefs without really holding them as of the utmost importance. I value reasoned debate, the exchange of ideas, logic, pretty much the entire enlightenment heritage of our nation.

That said, it is impossible for me to divorce my most deeply-held principles on what constitutes right and wrong, what is the proper structure of a society, what is "best" in any number of senses for our society and culture, from those debates. Everyone's opinion is based on something. Yet, for some reason, when a serious, sold-out Christian reaches a conclusion, let's say, that abortion is morally wrong, the cry rings out: THEOCRAT! TALIBAN! HOW DARE YOU EVER TRY TO IMPOSE YOUR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS! WHAT KIND OF BENIGHTED, MEDIEVAL FOOL ARE YOU? The introduction of the reason for my belief is supposed to be an absolute debate-stopper, which I should shelve to show how sophisticated and tolerant I am.

Hokum, I say. Libertarianism, environmentalism, supply-side or Keynsian economics, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and just about every school of thought is based in first principles. Mine happen to have been tested by 2000+ years of human experience, and are just as legitimate as any secular system of thought. The big question remains not what we think of the principles, but again, whether they are true.

Of course, as Americans we get to vote on things. In our system of government, this has consequences. And you win some, you lose some. Christians are obliged (by Romans 13) to accept the authority of the law, but fortunately our system also allows for a way to work within the system to remedy laws when we disagree. Sometimes, like in the recent partial-birth abortion case, I applaud the results because I think the system worked in getting the issue "right." Others, like in the Dred Scott decision or Roe v. Wade, I firmly believe that "we" (this nation of which my voice is a part) got it "wrong." I'll even accept, for the sake of argument, that my own opinion could, in the end, be wrong. But that doesn't change the fact that there IS such a thing as truth, and there will be an "end" where truth will out.

But what if there is NOT such a thing as truth? What if there is no God? What if my first principles are themselves untrue? In that case, the random electrons forming my thoughts are no "less" true than anybody else's. I'll at least feel good that my positions were consistent. If you believe in no truth, you can't even be "right" about that "fact," because there's no such thing. As Blaise Paschal wrote almost 500 years ago, I'll take that wager.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


There has been a lot of coverage on the news this week about the issue of abortion, most notably because Rudy Giuliani is attempting to become the GOP presidential nominee as a pro-choice candidate in a pro-life party, and also because one of his rivals, Mitt Romney, recently changed his position from pro-choice to pro-life. I have a few thoughts on the topic--some of which may not be quite what you would expect.

Let us stipulate, for starters, that this is a difficult issue. Those who think it is simple probably have never been forced to think about it very deeply. I have always been pro-life, and in a theoretical sense, I had always just figured that Jefferson's formulation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was listed in descending order of importance--that the right to life trumped the liberty to choose. Case closed. But a little over 10 years ago, a student-athlete of mine got pregnant. Of course, she shouldn't have, and saying "no" was an option she should have exercised from the outset. But Joanne (not her real name) was not an average student. She was an orphan, and lived at a local orphanage. To say she wasn't getting the best of advice from her parents was a real understatement. You can even see without a psychology major why she might have been starved enough for affection to not refuse the advances of some teenage boy. Worse, she was right on the verge of being accepted into a program for orphans about to graduate from high school, which would have set her up in a sort of halfway house program, with a checkbook, an apartment, and a job (I should say, a better job. She already worked, and I was often her ride from track practice to the store where she ran a register). Trick is, the program was not open to unwed mothers. All the input she was getting from the adults (and other kids) in her life, was to get an abortion. And you can see why--this baby was going to cost her the greatest opportunity to "get out" of her situation she had ever been offered. She came to me, her coach, who had taken her to church, for my opinion. All of a sudden, a lifetime of seeing abortion as a cop-out for immature middle-class kids who couldn't keep their pants up went fleeing out the window.

That's not to say that I joined the chorus of pro-choicers. I told her that I believed that she was carrying a genuine, living, baby, and that to kill it, for any reason, was morally wrong. I offered to help her work on the option of adoption. (And, over the next couple of weeks, I even found a family that would have been willing to adopt her child). Most importantly, I told her that I loved her, and God loved her. In the end, she chose the abortion. And I still think that what she chose was wrong. But I don't think she was just being selfish, or immature, or any of the other adjectives I used to associate with the pro-choice position.

An extreme case? Yes. Typical of most abortions in America? Certainly not. And it goes without saying, as so many of us learned in our childhood, that two wrongs don't make a right. That said, I do believe that there are difficult situations in some cases--the standard, "rape, incest, or life of the mother" formula, to name a few. But let me make a suggestion here. What if, just for argument, I was to say that I, a 100% absolutist on the immorality of abortion, would give in on all of those "hard" cases. Not that I'll change my moral viewpoint; I'll still think that life is life, killing is killing, sin is sin. But for the sake of practicality, I would give up on every single case of rape, incest, or where the mother's life was threatened. I might even allow a very strict scrutiny of some sort to allow cases like Joanne's to be heard fairly. How many millions of unborn lives would be saved if we could all agree, just to that? Most estimates say that over 95% of abortions are NOT the "hard cases."

But here's the rub. The "pro-choice" side, all the while mouthing the party line that they "hate" abortion, that it should be "safe, legal, and rare" would, for the most part, never take that deal. This is what I find so very striking about the legal side of the abortion debate: the first amendment, explicitly enshrined in the Constitution, is subject to reasonable restrictions (you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater, and if John McCain has his way, you can't even mention a candidate's name in a political ad 60 days out from an election). The second amendment, which again, explicity states that the right to keep and bear arms "shall not be infringed" is restricted in dozens of ways (you can't have a bazooka, there are instant background checks, minors can't own guns, you can't have them near schools). But Roe v. Wade, in finding the "right" to an abortion implicit--not ever mentioned--in the Constitution, cannot be restricted in ANY way without threatening our fundamental liberties. Whether Planned Parenthood, or NARAL, or any of the other pro-abortion lobbying groups, the line is always the same--no parental notification is OK (even though your teen daughter can't get a Tylenol without your consent, she can choose major surgery). No limitations on term are allowed, right up to the moment of conception, even if the baby is viable (The Supreme Court just recently ruled that "partial birth" abortion could be restricted, and you would have thought from the rhetoric that followed that Sharia Law had been imposed on the country). "Protecting a woman's right to choose" trumps even near-infanticide.

This, for me (like millions of others), is a completely untenable position. And so much of the rhetoric is intended to mislead. We're told all the time that Roe only legalized early abortion. And we're told that pro-choicers would gladly accept restriction, if only there was an exception for the "health of the mother." Yet the companion Doe case we never hear about allowed an exception for "health" reasons, which the Supreme Court agreed included anything up to and including mental discomfort. So "health" just means "anything goes, right up to partially born." Hogwash. Again, I'll be reasonable. If you got an MD (a real Ob-Gyn, not a "doc" who only does abortions at a mill) to swear an affadavit that an abortion was necessary because it would leave a woman sterile, or otherwise physically damaged, I'd lump that one with the "hard cases." But a little good-faith effort on the other side... just a little. That would be nice.

And this has major party implications, as well. I really don't consider myself a Republican. I am socially conservative, and traditionally (but not always) think that conservatives get the better of most economic arguments. Again, I'm not comparing the GOP of the 1880s or 1930s with their Democratic counterparts--I'm talking post-1980 Republicans and post-1968 Democrats. But I could buy in to a centrist Democrat who shared my values over a Republican who didn't (hence my disdain for Giuliani). However, so long as the Democrats remain the vehemently pro-abortion party (and that includes making disingenuous statements about "health" when they know better), then I just cannot go there. More than the war, more than the "gay marriage" issue, this, to me, seems one of the areas where I cannot just say "good, smart people disagree on this one," or, "if I accepted your premise I might reach the same conclusions." We're talking about a crime. With an innocent victim. And so, even as much as I might hate to defend George W. Bush when it's so easy to join the chorus of bashers and get the approving looks around the faculty table, I still have not been able to find it within myself to wish that John Kerry or Al Gore had appointed the last two Supreme Court judges.

One last point, and I'll put this over-long post out of its misery. What if Roe were overturned, today? To hear the rhetoric, you'd think that abortion as a procedure would instantly be outlawed nationwide. But, in reality, nothing would change. It would just open the door to states making their own rules. Some would keep the on-demand system we have now. Certain others (I think most) would adopt some varying levels of restriction. A couple might try to outlaw the procedure entirely, but I'll bet they'd have a hard time, at least on what I called the "hard cases." It would just take this very difficult issue and put it in the hands of the voters, instead of 9 judges. It's not like the court is always right. Obviously, Dred Scott v. Sanford, which held that slavery was OK, was a bad decision. To insist that because Roe is "settled law" and therefore can't be revisited is just ludicrous. Although, as I have said, I wouldn't mind overturning the Doe case first, and working on the hard stuff later.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Updates, Updates!

Having left my "loyal readership" (all maybe 10 of you) hanging since my last post, here's the skinny on what's been happening of late.

The track team, it turns out, wasn't the third-best team on paper--they were 4th (I hadn't even considered a team from GA, which, strangely, is in the SC league). But we overperformed and placed 3rd anyway, and only 7 points behind 2nd. Overall, one of the most satisfying seasons I have coached, and a great team top-to-bottom.

My own running is back on track (bad pun intended). After struggling with the early-AM resolution, the end of the team's season allowed me to shift my own running back to the afternoons, which is much better for me. And now we're in pre-season cross-country, which means for a few days I'll have the added benefit of a team to run with. The biggest help, though, is I have been using my brother-in-law as a "virtual training partner." I email him almost every day and check in, and the knowledge that he'll give me a load of crap that only a brother can makes it far more likely that I'll get out the door. He'll miss a few weeks soon with yet another surgery, but I'm hoping that he gets in good enough shape before-hand that his missed time will cancel out with mine at camp and Rome, allowing us to compete as we always have by summer's end. I'm certainly not "all the way back" yet, but I'm just starting to get enough back that every single run doesn't disgust me, which is a start!

Finally, a stab at all you folks out there with "real jobs." (I don't have a REAL job, I have an UNREAL job!) One of my favorite math teachers over 20 years ago used to keep a countdown on her chalk-board after spring break labeled WUM's (Wake-Up-Mornings). That's how many more days until summer vacation. The rules are that you can't count WUM's before spring break (it just hurts too bad), and you can't count today (because you're already up... therefore on the last day of school, the counter reads zero). I have appointed myself the keeper of the WUM's for a new generation. And today's magic number is.... drum roll.... 13!

I have high hopes of writing something serious (I'm developing my thoughts for a post on the issue of abortion) soon. But not yet. Watch this space for further coverage of what passes for original thought in my world.