Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some Thoughts on Posthumous Baptism

In real life and on Twitter, I have been having a lot of conversations about the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing non-Mormons including Jewish Holocaust victims. Some people, like Ari Kohen (a professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska), are offended by the practice.

I, on the other hand, am not bothered by the practice.

Part of my lack of offense at the practice is my belief that it does not affect the souls of the deceased. I am Jewish, so I don't believe that the baptism of the dead (or of the living that matter) is consequential for people's souls (although the experience of baptism is clearly meaningful for many people's lives). So, if Mormons want to baptize the dead, or members of some other faith want to pray for the souls of the deceased, no one is harmed in any way.

But, this isn't exactly Kohen's problem with the practice. Kohen agrees that posthumous baptism does not matter to the dead. His complaint is that posthumous baptism is disrespectful to the religious beliefs of others.
At bottom, no one thinks that what the Mormons are doing really matters to the dead people who are being baptized. But it does matter to me.
My problem with posthumous baptism is that it’s disrespectful. Assuming that the dead people don’t know that they’re being disrespected, we can nonetheless assert that it’s disrespectful to the group deemed to be in need of posthumous baptism. Indeed, I’d say it is about as clear a statement as we can get of one group’s belief in the inferiority of the beliefs of another group. It amounts to an invalidation of the choices that people make in their lives and a direct paternalistic challenge to their agency: “We know better than they do and, thankfully, we’ll be able to help them out.”
I agree with Kohen's assessment of the attitude of the Mormon Church toward non-Mormons. Mormons, indeed believe that their faith is a unique statement of God's truth. So, while you probably won't see it put like this in any official LDS documents,  “We know better than they do and, thankfully, we’ll be able to help them out [after they die]” isn't especially unfair.

I do not share his emotional response, though.

Almost all Western religions claim unique knowledge of God's truth and explicitly reject important tenants of other faiths. Jews deny the divinity of Christ. Catholics reject the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Protestant reject transubstantiation and the necessity of good works for salvation. People of any given faith, by definition, believe that they have something right that others have wrong.

Mormons are not unique in their belief that Jews and others who have not accepted Jesus as their savior are punished for their sins in the hereafter. Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodist, and every other denomination and nondenomination of traditional and evangelical Christianity (officially, at least) believe the same thing. Mormons are only unique in their belief that the dead can be saved by posthumous baptism. Most everyone else believes that damnation is permanent.

These beliefs are not in and of themselves disrespectful, though.

Even if I disagree with someone else's beliefs, I can still respect their faith and their right to believe as they wish. As a Jew, I can respect that someone has come to believe that faith in Jesus can save his soul even if I disagree with his belief. A Christian can believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus and respect that I have come to a different conclusion. Jews and Christians can both respect the choice of atheists to reject faith in God altogether. So long as we acknowledge that others have a right to choose their faith and take no action that interferes with the faith and worship of others, disagreement about religion is not synonymous with disrespect.

This still leaves the question of whether the act of baptizing the dead is worse than the belief that a baptism could redeem the souls of dead non-Mormons. This distinction is important to Kohen.

But the posthumous baptism makes my skin crawl so much more than the people who wander the streets carrying their holy books precisely because it’s unseen. I’m on a list somewhere to have my soul saved and there’s nothing I can do about it; there’s no door I can shut, no one to whom I can say, “No thanks, I’m all set.”
One of the real keys to living in a pluralistic society is to accept that others will have different beliefs from one’s own and thus to avoid constantly thrusting one’s beliefs in the faces of those others. You think I’m wrong? That’s just fine. You can think whatever you’d like to think. But when you attempt to do something about it, then it seems to me that you’re crossing a line that liberal pluralists don’t cross.
In shutting the door on the people who wants to talk about their faith with me, I assert my agency; I choose for myself and, even if they think I’m wrong, they have to get off my front porch. The rules of our society force them to leave me alone to believe whatever I want, just as I have always left them alone to do the same. With posthumous baptism, people are actively refusing to tolerate me and others like me. That is what makes it unacceptable.
First, the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead and other Christians' practice of praying for souls that have not been saved are almost always either secret or private. If anything, I am sure that the Mormon Church would just as soon have us all not know this is something they do at all. So, Mormons are hardly thrusting anything in anyone's face.

More broadly, though, there is a question of whether proselytizing the living or dead is disrespectful.

Kohen seems to think that acting on a belief that someone is unaware of your faith's version of the truth is inherently disrespectful.

Again, I disagree.

While I have certainly had people be disrespectful to me because of my faith, I have also had countless completely respectful interactions with people of other faiths (almost universally various kinds of Christians, including Mormons) who initiated conversations with me to share their faith. These people have been close friends and total strangers, and, the rare exception aside, they have approached me and engaged me in conversations about faith out of love for me (or people in general) and concern for my soul.

Raising a question of faith is not in and of itself disrespectful.

Proselytizers can be disrespectful. They can try to continue conversations when people have asked to end them. They can invade people's space and time. They can be dismissive or rude. They can return to someone's home when they have been asked not to, they can yell at passersby from soap boxes. Religious practices and discussions are disrespectful when they fail to respect people's fundamental right to control their time, their space, and their life.

Proselytizers need not be disrespectful. When people's boundaries are respected, conversations about faith and conversion can occur with as much respect and dignity as any other conversation a person might have about their important life choices.

Praying for someone outside their presence or baptizing someone after they have died does not interfere with their time, space, or life in any way. So long as Mormons respect people's right to choose their faith (or lack of faith) in life, their belief in the salvation of the dead does not disturb me.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Are there two political realities?

Paul Krugman notes and comments on Chris Mooney's essay summarizing some recent research by political scientists showing that Republicans often provide survey responses indicating belief in information that is incorrect or unsound. Furthermore, the research indicates that better-educated Republicans more often express belief in untruths more frequently than less-educated Republican. Krugman quotes Mooney's key passages:
For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans...
But it’s not just global warming where the “smart idiot” effect occurs. It also emerges on nonscientific but factually contested issues, like the claim that President Obama is a Muslim. Belief in this falsehood actually increased more among better-educated Republicans from 2009 to 2010 than it did among less-educated Republicans, according to research by George Washington University political scientist John Sides.
The same effect has also been captured in relation to the myth that the healthcare reform bill empowered government “death panels.” According to research by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, Republicans who thought they knew more about the Obama healthcare plan were “paradoxically more likely to endorse the misperception than those who did not.”
Krugman chalks this up to the triumph of ideology over information in American politics and concludes with a vaguely threatening statement about the limited prospects for rational debate in American politics.
Highly educated political conservatives — and this includes conservative economists — are going to be less persuadable by empirical evidence than the man or woman in the street. The more holes you poke in doctrines like expansionary austerity or supply-side economics, the more committed they will get to those doctrines.
This debate isn’t going to be won by rational argument.
Leaving aside how Krugman thinks he is going to win a debate without rational argument, there is a question about whether surveys are really showing what it looks like they are showing, i.e. that more education and more exposure to information leaves Republicans and conservatives less well informed about the world. As I have argued here before, I don't think this is the case. Instead, I think anonymous telephone or internet survey responses investigating respondents' belief in this or that politically salient fact is going to be strongly contaminated by people's attitudes about the person or policy in question.

So, was the president born in the United States? I suspect that people who dislike the president or disapprove of the the job he is doing in office will be more likely to tell a stranger on the phone that he is not a natural born citizen than someone who supports the president whether or not that person really believes the president was born abroad. Likewise, if I oppose environmental policies like cap-and-trade, I might express my disapproval of that policy to a survey take by expressing disbelief in the facts of man-made global warming whether or not I think human activity influences the climate.

Chris Good wrote about this kind of message-sending survey response last spring for The Atlantic:
We've all said things we don't mean.

If it's not "maybe this was a mistake," or "your sister is the pretty one," it's something else, like, for instance, "I think Barack Obama was born outside the United States and is constitutionally ineligible to be president."
That's one theory we can apply to birtherism -- and it's the theory offered up by respected pollster Gary Langer, who heads up Langer Research Associates and directs polling for ABC News.

A wave of recent surveys have shown that doubts about Obama's birthplace are stunningly prevalent. In a CBS/New York Times poll, 25 percent of all respondents and 45 percent of Republicans said they do not think Obama was born in the United States. A total of 18 percent said they weren't sure. According to Fox News, 24 percent do not think Obama was born in America.

Maybe, just maybe, those poll respondents don't actually think what they say they think, Langer suggests. Maybe they say all this for some other reason -- such as that they just don't like the president.

"I'd suggest that it's dicey at best to evaluate measurements on questions such as the president's birthplace as a 'belief,' as opposed to, for at least some respondents, merely an expression of antipathy," Langer wrote in an email. "We have called this 'expressed belief,' in contrast with 'affirmed belief.' The latter is an assertion of perceived factual reality; the former, message-sending."
In fact, if a person believes that politicians will use evidence of the public's belief in a particular fact as a justification for a policy with which she disagrees, she every incentive to misrepresent her beliefs in a survey. Likewise, if she believe that evidence of an unfounded opposition to a particular policy that she opposes will still scare politicians away from supporting it, she has the same incentive to say she believes something that she does not.

The upshot of this is that directly asking people about their beliefs in surveys will not do a very good job of telling us about the state of knowledge around politically charged facts. By extension, the extent to which Republicans and Democrats really disagree about important facts (and the extent to which that disagreement is greater than in the past) is probably exaggerated by simple survey data and overly-earnest analyses of them. Polarization in the mass public is very real, of course, but by and large it seems to me to be motivated by the mass parties' different responses to the same political reality rather than much serious disagreement about what that reality is.

Monday, February 20, 2012

New Forthcoming Article:

Public Opinion and Conflict in the Separation of Powers: Understanding the Honduran Coup of 2009

Michelle M. Taylor-Robison
Professor, Department of Political Science
Texas A&M University

Joseph Daniel Ura
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science
Texas A&M University

Abstract: Constitutional systems of separated powers often fail to sustain meaningful systems of checks and balances in presidential democracies. What conditions support balance in the separation of powers, and what conditions provoke instability and conflict? We draw on Madisonian political theory and research addressing the separation of powers in the United States to develop a game theoretical model of inter-institutional stability and conflict within a separation of powers system. Two factors emerge as catalysts for institutional instability and conflict among the branches of government: high stakes institutional rivalry combined with uncertainty about the public‟s relative support for various branches of government. We apply the model to the experience of Honduras in 2008-09 that resulted in the coup ousting President Zelaya which illustrates the difficulty of developing credible checks and balances.

The accepted (but not yet proofed) version of the paper may be viewed here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Payroll Tax Deal is a Disaster for the GOP

Off the top of my head:

1. Instead of being able to campaign against the president's fiscal irresponsibility, the Republicans decided to join him in it.

2. It legitimizes the idea of economic stimulus.

3. Tens of billions of dollars in new debt.

4. By increasing the deficit, the deal will inflate demand for government services and benefits, which will undermine the Republican Party's electoral competitiveness and its ability to enact public policies that reduce the size and scope of federal government's domestic policy programs.

Given both parties' utter unwillingness to face up to the country's evident fiscal problems, I can't help but conclude that this pretty well sums up where things stand:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Political Science Valentines

Just in case anyone needed additional evidence of political scientists' eagerness to emulate economists, John Sides has announced the political science Valentine contest over at The Monkey Cage.

My submission:
The status quo is irrelevant. I always prefer to “spend more” time with you.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Tyranny of Paperwork and Processing Fees

So, over the last couple days, I have run across two separate stories in major media outlets about the trials and tribulations of two women, each trying to do something completely legal.

The first is the story of Juliet Priess, who spent two years and "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to open an ice cream parlor in San Francisco.
Ms. Pries said it took two years to open the restaurant, due largely to the city’s morass of permits, procedures and approvals required to start a small business. While waiting for permission to operate, she still had to pay rent and other costs, going deeper into debt each passing month without knowing for sure if she would ever be allowed to open.
“It’s just a huge risk,” she said, noting that the financing came from family and friends, not a bank. “At several points you wonder if you should just walk away and take the loss.”
Ms. Pries said she had to endure months of runaround and pay a lawyer to determine whether her location (a former grocery, vacant for years) was eligible to become a restaurant. There were permit fees of $20,000; a demand that she create a detailed map of all existing area businesses (the city didn’t have one); and an $11,000 charge just to turn on the water.
The second is the story of Emily Miller's effort to legally acquire a handgun in the District of Columbia. I should say "stories," in this case, since Miller has documented her travails in a blog for the Washington Times since last October.
Law-abiding citizens have to take a five-hour class that is only taught outside of the District, pay $465 in fees, sign six forms, pass a written test on gun laws, get fingerprinted, be subject to a police ballistics test and take days off work.
And that's just to get the gun. Miller notes that the District of Columbia prohibits her from possessing her gun anywhere other than her home (or in a locked box in transit to the firearms registration office) and places further onerous restrictions on the sale of ammunition.

In each of these instances, the subject wants to do something perfectly legal. (In Emily Miller's case, she merely wants to act on constitutional right that was explicitly confirmed by a recent Supreme Court decision.) Yet, each woman is subjected to extensive costs, hassles, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Each woman was successful in doing something perfectly legal only because she had the time, intelligence, and resources to overcome these barriers.

(Just in case reality is too abstract for you, you might recall Cutty's tortured efforts to open a boxing gym for troubled youth on The Wire.)

These stories leave me deeply angry.

First, these kind of permitting regimes invert the basic relationship between citizens in a free republic and their government. In a free society, we typically presume that a person is acting in compliance with the law---that he is innocent---unless there is an affirmative demonstration that he is not---until he is proven guilty. Requirements to demonstrate your compliance with the law flip that equation. Absent an ability affirmatively demonstrate one's lawfulness, a person is presumed to be in violation of the law; a person is guilty until he proves his innocence.

Second, obtuse bureaucracies discriminate against the working, the simple, and the poor. A woman who cannot take time off of work, afford a $465 processing fee, or understand the paperwork and procedure for becoming a licensed gun owner in the District of Columbia is less free to defend herself, her home, and her family than a educated, salaried, middle-class newspaper editor. A person without "family and friends" capable of helping finance $31,000 in fees for permits and starting water service is less free that someone who can call on these kind of resources. For all the recent chatter in the world about inequality, there has been embarrassingly little attention paid to the ways in which the government creates and exacerbates differences between classes of people by erecting barriers to personal safety, innovation, and economic opportunity that exclude those who stand to gain the most from self-protection, invention, and entrepreneurship.

Mostly, though, stories like these just make me think about the countless, invisible ways that we are all worse off because of this kind of crap. How many ice cream shops (restaurants, gyms, factories, mines, farms, bakeries, charities) will we never be because someone's entrepreneurial impulse was smothered by the tyranny of paperwork and processing fees? How many people might have started businesses, gotten better jobs, or otherwise lived a better life if the costs of starting a business were just limited to the costs of starting a business? How many people will be terrorized or victimized in their homes because they where overwhelmed by the government-imposed costs and hassles of purchasing the means to defend themselves?

Tyranny can come in a lot of forms. It is easy to recognize when it's wearing jackboots and carrying a gun. It's a bit harder to spot, though, when it comes carrying a clipboard and manilla folders, but the difference between the two is a matter of degree and not of kind. The rights to act in any manner consistent with the law and the rights of others, to be presumed innocent, and to be treated equally by the law are fundamental elements of a free society. We are losing them, and we are worse off for it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Majorities Do Not Suck

In a post at Kids Prefer Cheese, Mike Munger gets down on majoritarianism in general and as it applies to Proposition 8 in California. He writes:
Majorities suck. There is no reason to let majorities define morality for the rest of us. Even if I get Kos-trated, I'll still say it.

That's why we have the Bill of Rights. That's why we have the 14th Amendment, to ensure that the state governments, like the Feds, cannot use the tyranny of the majority to abuse individual rights. A key part of the 14th Amendment says: "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

That should have been the basis of the court decision blocking Prop 8 in California. Equal protection. The majority wanted Prop 8. The majority can go jump in the lake.
...Majorities suck. Why would anyone expect to find rectitude in the multitude?

And if we don't trust majorities to choose morality / religion / restrictions on speech for the rest of us, why would anyone trust voters to pick the right candidate? After taking these abuses, I'm warming to the Electoral College....

The US is not a democracy. We don't trust majorities, because of stupid stuff like slavery and the Alien and Sedition Act, and the Patriot Act, and Prop 8. There is nothing special about the majority will, it's just what most people happen to believe.
Munger's post expresses a pretty common libertarian suspicion of popular majorities. But, both that generic coutermajoritarian streak and its application to the case of Proposition 8 are misguided in some ways.

To start with the specific case of marriage equality, you have to take an awfully narrow view of what constitutes a majority to invoke a decision by the most popular branch of the federal government to invalidate a state law under the terms of an amendment to the federal constitution (which was created by a supermajority) to enforce a policy position which has majority support in the country as a whole.

More generally, all of the institutionalized protections of personal freedom and individual equality we have---including the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the 14th Amendment---were created by majorities and continue to enjoy majority support. Likewise, the institutions most directly charged with enforcing the boundaries of personal liberty and equality against encroachment enjoy extensive public support and, indeed, must enjoy majority support to persist.

So, when a transient majority makes a law contrary to the wishes of a persistent majority in favor of the principle of free speech, for example, and that law is invalidated by a court, it is, at best, an oversimplification to say that the majority has done something that "sucks." Yes, one majority made a sucky law, but another majority (and perhaps a majority with a great deal of overlap with the law-making majority) created and sustained the institutions that prevented the law from taking effect and supports the principle used to overturn the law. The good majority and the bad majority are both majorities, and the law infringing on free speech and the court decision overturning it are both, likewise, majoritarian.

When Munger writes, "The US is not a democracy. We don't trust majorities..." the "We" in the sentence is a majority. He is correct that we don't trust ourselves to act always in a manner consistent with our principles, so we precommit to making (or not making) some kinds of decisions. Ignoring the initial, principled majoritarian commitment and focussing only on the later, unprincipled majoritarian failing sells majorities short.

Likewise, jumping ship on majoritarian institutions just because they don't always work may be a cure worse than the disease. Munger writes "We don't trust majorities, because of stupid stuff like slavery and the Alien and Sedition Act, and the Patriot Act, and Prop 8." These are actually some pretty good examples of the perils of countermajoritarianism.
  • The importation of slaves was constitutionally protected until 1808 despite the existence of a national majority against the practice (that acted to ban further importation as soon as the relevant constitutional provision expired). Slavery in the South was protected politically by the Constitution's guarantee of equal state suffrage in the Senate and extended into the federal territories by a decision of the Supreme Court overturning a statute excluding slavery from them.
  • The Alien and Sedition Acts were the effort of a party in government to stem the tide of their own electoral demise. The Federalists did not enjoy the support of a majority of the electorate and the legislation was a naked attempt to limit the ability of the Democratic-Republicans to press their majoritarian advantage in national elections.
  • The Patriot Act was most prominently supported by a president who was first elected by a majority of the Electoral College despite his failure to secure a plurality of the national popular vote.
Munger is right, of course, that "There is nothing special about the majority will, it's just what most people happen to believe." There is, of course, nothing special about anyone or any other group's will, either. It's just what whoever happens to believe.

There is danger, of course, in democracy, but it is the same danger inherent in all government---that power will be abused to interfere with the essential rights of the people. By and large, though, the record of history indicates that democratic systems do a much better job of protecting those rights and liberties than other institutional arrangements. And, for nearly every instance I can think of a transient majority trampling the rights of a minority in this country, I can think of a case in which majorities have enhanced or extended the rights of minorities or a case in which countermajoritian institutions have enabled minorities to undermine the rights of majorities.

Majorities do not inherently suck, and a reflexive belief in their suckiness is probably just as wrong as a reflexive faith in their wisdom.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Texas A&M researchers reject 'starving the beast' theory"

My paper on the behavioral consequences of budget deficits (coauthored with A&M grad student Erica Socker, who is currently working at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities) got a nice little write-up in The Eagle, which is the local newspaper here in College Station. Here's a highlight:
But despite major tax cuts under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the U.S. is now $15 trillion in debt and political intransigence is preventing even the first steps toward addressing what both parties agree demands urgency.

A pair of Texas A&M researchers now have a theory about the behavioral mechanism that has led the U.S. into its current hole. And the researchers say starving-the-beast policies have not only been unhelpful, but hurtful.

The researchers -- Joseph Daniel Ura, an assistant political science professor, and a doctoral student, Erica Socker -- say the theory seems to make intuitive sense: Cutting taxes naturally has to lead to reduced spending.

But it hasn't worked that way because of deficit spending and the "fiscal illusion" that it creates. This spending, like putting a purchase on a credit card, obscures the true price of government services, making them seem cheaper and, perversely, increases demand for even more government spending, the researchers say.

"The paper doesn't have a dog in the fight about what the right level of government spending is," said Ura, who specializes in mass political behavior. "It just says we will do a better job of making an intelligent choice about what level we want when there's a more clear connection between revenues and outlays."
Reports indicate that my mom and dad are very impressed.