Archive for May, 2010

Making the Wrong Assumption

There are many reasons why people, projects, initiatives, military campaigns, political campaigns, legislation, friendships, and marriages – as well as a host of others – fail, but I’m convinced that the largest and least recognized reason for such failures is that those involved in such make incorrect assumptions.

One incorrect assumption that has bedeviled U.S. foreign policy for generations is that other societies share our fundamental values about liberty and democracy.  Most don’t.  They may want the same degree of power and material success, but they don’t endorse the values that make our kind of success possible.  Among other things, democracy is based on sharing power and compromise – a fact, unfortunately, that all too many U.S. ideologues fail to recognize, which may in fact destroy the U.S. political system as envisioned by the Founding Fathers and as developed by their successors… until the last generation.  Theocratically-based societies neither accept nor recognize either compromise or power-sharing – except as the last resort to be abandoned as soon as possible.  A related assumption is that peoples can act and vote in terms of the greater good.  While this is dubious even in the United States, it’s an insane assumption in a land where allegiance to the family or clan is paramount and where children are taught to distrust anyone outside the clan.

On a smaller scale, year after year, educational “reformers” in the United States assume, if tacitly and by their actions, that the decline in student achievements and accomplishments can be reversed solely by testing and by improving the quality of teachers.  This assumption is fatally flawed because student learning requires two key factors – those who can and are willing to work to teach and those who can learn and who are willing to learn.  Placing all the emphasis on the teachers and testing assumes that a single teacher in a classroom can and must overcome all the pressures of society, the media, the social peer pressures to do anything but learn, the idea that learning should be fun, and all the other societal pressures that are antithetical to the work required to learn. There are a comparative handful of teachers who can work such miracles, but basing educational policy and reforms on those who are truly exceptional is both poor policy and doomed to failure.  Those who endorse more testing as way to ensure that teachers teach the “right stuff” assume that the testing itself will support the standards, which it won’t, if the students aren’t motivated, not to mention the fact that more testing leaves less time for teaching and learning.  So, in a de facto assumption, not only does the burden of teaching fall upon educators, but so does the burden of motivating the unmotivated, and disciplining the undisciplined at a time when society has effectively removed the traditional forms of discipline without providing any effective replacements.  Yet the complaints mount, and American education is failing, even as the “reformers” keep assuming that teachers and testing alone can stem the tide.

For years, economists used what can loosely be termed “the rational person” model for analyzing the way various markets operated.  This assumption has proved to be horribly wrong, as recent studies – and economic developments – proved, because in all too many key areas, individuals do not behave rationally.  Most people refuse to cut their losses, even at the risk of losing everything, and most continue uneconomic behaviors not in their own interests, even when they perceive such behaviors in others as irrational and unsound.  Those who distrust the market system assume that regulation, if only applied correctly, can solve the problems, and those who believe that markets are self-correcting assume that deregulation will solve everything.  History and experience would suggest both assumptions are wrong.

In more than a few military conflicts dating back over recent centuries, military leaders have often assumed that superior forces and weapons would always prevail.  And… if the military command in question does indeed have such superiority and is willing to employ it efficiently to destroy everything that might possibly stand in its way, then “superiority” usually wins.  This assumption fails, however, in all too many cases where one is unable or unwilling to carry out the requisite slaughter of the so-called civilian population, or when military objectives cannot be quickly obtained, because, in fact, in virtually every war of any length a larger and larger fraction of the civilian population becomes involved on one side or another, and “superiority” shifts.  In this regard, people usually think of Vietnam or Afghanistan, but, in fact, the same sort of shift occurred in World War II.  At the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the British armed forces had about 1 million men in arms, the U.S. 175,000, and the Russians 1.5 million.  Together, the Germans and Japanese had over 5 million trained troops and far more advanced tanks, aircraft, and ships.  By the end of the war, those ratios had changed markedly.

While failure can be ascribed to many causes, I find it both disturbing and amazing that seldom are the basic assumptions behind bad decisions ever brought forward as causal factors… and have to ask, “Why not?”  Is it because, even after abject failure or costly success that didn’t have to be so costly, no one wants to admit that their assumptions were at fault?

Ends or Means

By the time they reach their twenties, at least a few people have been confronted, in some form or another, with the question of whether the ends justify the means.  For students, that’s usually in the form of cheating – does cheating to get a high grade in order to get into a better college [hopefully] justify the lack of ethics?  In business, it’s often more along the lines of whether focusing on short-term success, which may result in a promotion or bonus [or merely keeping your job in some corporations], is justified if it creates long-term problems or injuries to others.

On the other hand, I’ve seldom seen the question raised in a slightly different context.  That is, are there situations where the emphasis should be on the means? For example, on vacation, shouldn’t the emphasis be on the vacation, not on getting to the end of it?  Likewise, in listening to your favorite music, shouldn’t the emphasis be on the listening and not getting to the end?

I suppose there must be some few situations where the end is so vital that the means don’t matter, but the older I get, the fewer examples of that I’ve been able to cite because I’ve discovered that the means so affect the ends that you can seldom accomplish the ends without a disproportionate cost in collateral damage.

This leads to those situations where one needs to concentrate on perfection in accomplishing the means, because, if you don’t, you won’t get to the end.  Some instances such as these are piloting, downhill ski racing, Grand Prix driving [or driving in Los Angles or Washington, D.C., rush hour traffic], or undertaking all manner of professional tasks, such as brain or heart surgery, law enforcement, or fire fighting.

The problem that many people, particularly students, have is a failure to understand that, in the vast majority of cases, learning the process is as critical [if not more so] as the result.  Education, for example, despite all the hype about tests and evaluations, is not about tests, grades, and credentials [degrees/certification].  Even if you get the degree or certification or other credential, unless you’ve learned enough in the process, you’re going to fail sooner or later – or you’ll have to learn all over what you should have learned the first time.  Unfortunately, because many entry-level jobs don’t require the full skill set those who were trying to provide the education were attempting to instill, that failure may not come for years… and when it does, the results will be far more catastrophic.  And, of course, some people will escape those results, because there are always those who do… and, unfortunately, for some reasons, those “evaders” are almost invariably the ones those who don’t want to do the work to learn the process pick as examples and reasons why they shouldn’t work on learning the processes behind the skills.

Studies done on college graduates two generations ago “discovered” that such graduates made far more income over their lifetimes than did those without a college degree.  Unfortunately, the message became that a degree was what mattered, not the skills represented by that degree, and ever since then people have focused on the credential, rather than on the skills, a fact emphasized by rampant grade and degree inflation and documental by the noted scholar Jacques Barzun, in his book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present , where he observed that one of the reasons for the present and continuing decline of Western Civilization is the fact that our culture now exalts credentials over skills and real accomplishments.

One of the most notable examples of this is the emphasis on monetary gain, as exemplified by developments in the stock and securities markets over the past two years.  The “credential” of the highest profit at any cost has so distorted the process of underwriting housing and business investment that the profit levels reaped by various sectors of the economy bear no relationship to their contribution to either the economy or culture.  People whose decisions in pursuit of ever higher and unrealistic profit levels destroyed millions of jobs are rewarded with the “credential” of high incomes, while those who police our streets, fight our fires, protect our nation, and educate our children face salary freezes and layoffs – all because ends justify any means.

Hypocrisy… Thy Name Is “Higher” Education

The semester is over, or about over, in colleges and universities across the United States, and in the majority of those universities another set of rituals will be acted out.  No… I’m not talking about graduation.  I’m talking about the return of “student evaluations” to professors and instructors. The entire idea of student evaluations is a largely American phenomenon that caught hold sometime in the late 1970s, and it is now a monster that not only threatens the very concept of improving education, but it’s also a poster child for the hypocrisy of most college and university administrations.

Now… before we go farther, let me emphasize that I am not opposing the evaluation of faculty in higher education.  Far from it.  Such evaluation is necessary and a vital part of assuring the quality of faculty and teaching.  What I am opposed to is the use of student evaluations in any part of that process.

Take my wife’s music department.  In addition to their advanced degrees, the vast majority have professional experience outside academia.  My wife has sung professionally on three continents, played lead roles in regional operas, and has directed operas for over twenty years.  The other voice professor left a banking career to become a successful tenor in national and regional opera before returning to school and obtaining a doctorate in voice.  The orchestra conductor is a violinist who has conducted in both the United States and China.  The band director spends his summer working with the Newport Jazz Festival.  The piano professor won the noted Tchaikovsky Award and continues to concertize world-wide.  The percussion professor performs professionally on the side and has several times been part of a group nominated for a Grammy.  This sort of expertise in a music department is not unusual, but typical of many universities, and I could come up with similar kinds of expertise in other university departments as well.

Yet… on student evaluations, the students rate their professors on how effective the professors are at teaching, whether the curricula and content are relevant, whether the amount of work required in the course is excessive, etc.  My question/point is simple:  Exactly how can 18-24 year-old students have any real idea of any of the above?  They have no relevant experience or knowledge, and to obtain it is presumably why they’re in college.

Studies have shown that the closest correlation between high student evaluations is that the professors with the easiest courses and the highest percentage of As get the best evaluations. And, since evaluations have become near-universal, college level grades have experienced massive grade inflation.  In short, student evaluations are merely student Happiness Indices – HI!, for short.

So why have the vast majority of colleges and universities come to rely on HI! in evaluating professors for tenure, promotion, and retention?  It has little to do with teaching effectiveness or the quality of education provided by a given professor and everything to do with popularity.  In the elite schools, student happiness is necessary in order to keep student retention rates up, because that’s one of the key factors used by U.S. News and World Report and other rating groups, and the higher the rating, the more attractive the college or university is to the most talented students, and those students are most likely to be successful and eventually boost alumni contributions and the school’s reputation.  For state universities, it’s a more direct numbers game.  Drop-outs and transfers represent lost funds and inquiries from state legislatures who provide some of the funding.  And departments who are too rigorous in their attempts to maintain or [heaven forbid] upgrade the quality of education often either lose students or fail to grow as fast as other departments, which results in fewer resources for those departments.  Just as Amazon’s reader reviews greatly boosted Amazon’s book sales, HI! boost the economics of colleges and universities.  Professors who try to uphold or raise standards face an uphill and usually unsuccessful battle – as evidenced by the growing percentage of college graduates who lack basic skills in writing and logical understanding.

Yet, all the while, the administrations talk about the necessity of HI! [sanctimoniously disguised as thoughtful student evaluations] in improving education, when it’s really about economics and their bottom line… and by the way, in virtually every university and college across the country, over the past 20 years, the percentage growth in administration size has dwarfed the growth in full-time, tenure-track, and tenured faculty.  But then, why would any administration really want to point out that perceived student happiness trumps academic excellence in every day and in every way or that all those resources are going more and more to administrators, while faculties, especially at state universities, have fewer and fewer professors and more and more adjuncts and  teaching assistants?

Newer… Not Always Better

Somehow people, especially students, don’t get it.  As the title above suggests, just because something is newer, it isn’t necessary better – even in computers.  I have yet to find a commercial graphing program in existence today that is anywhere even close to the Boeing Graph program of some 25 years ago.  And as techno-historians know, the Beta videotape system was far superior to the VHS system.

What’s interesting now, though, is that for some applications – such as viewing student voice teachers and critiquing them – VHS tapes are far superior to DVDs.  Why?  Because the tapes can be paused at any given second, or rewound to a precise point.  Commercial DVDs and equipment can’t.  When a voice professor is studying vocal dynamics, that’s important.  Having to play through sections, even at high speed, takes time and often overshoots or undershoots the point in question.  Yet my wife’s pedagogy students complain that she uses “antiquated equipment” and makes them use old-fashioned tapes instead of new hip digital disks.  What they don’t seem to understand is that “new” isn’t better if it doesn’t do what you want it to, especially when “old” technology does.

This isn’t confined to the sometimes arcane area of vocal pedagogy, but applies across our techno-society. Typewriters do a far better job of filling in forms – at least those not available on one’s own computer – than do computers. Word Seven is a much faster word processing system for text than is the current version of Word [which I do have for the other applications], and the search capabilities of fifteen-year-old WordPerfect 6.0 still exceed those of any current version of Word.  As I noted in an earlier post, a keyed ignition is far more effective at turning off a runaway engine than a new high-tech keyless engine, not to mention safer.  My “old” color ink-jet printer delivers a far cleaner and clearer image than does the new and improved laser-jet printer, even if the laser is faster. And in terms of overall medical effectiveness, in terms of all factors, there’s no solid proof that the newer NSAIDs have any more benefits and more effectiveness than does good old aspirin, and although aspirin does have a slightly higher propensity to create gastro-intestinal bleeding, it also has many other benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart attacks and colon cancer – and it’s one of the oldest drugs around. Certainly, the now-retired Concorde passenger jet was far superior to any commercial aircraft now in service in getting passengers across the ocean quickly, and more than a few pilots still claim that the retired F-14 exceeds anything now flying for total air superiority.  Photographic film still provides a better image than does comparable digital photography.

Going back to recording equipment, if you happen to have a phonograph with a working needle, you can still play vinyl and other old records nearly a century old.  You certainly can’t do that with tapes even half that old, and a single light scratch effectively destroys the usefulness of a CD.  That’s fine for entertainment products that aren’t meant to outlast the current fad, but is it acceptable for recording data or information with a longer lifespan?

So why aren’t newer products always better?  The plain fact is that superiority is often far down the list in product qualities, usually behind cost of production/operation, novelty appeal, style, ease of operation, and profitability.  Another factor is that, especially in computer and communications products, manufacturers try to cram in as many applications as possible so as to appeal to the widest possible number of consumers. The multiplicity of applications generally results in the overall degradation of the capability of all functions, but that degradation usually isn’t perceptible, or relevant, to most users.

This often results in cheaper products, but the downside is that those products often don’t suit the needs of professionals in specialized fields… and because it’s getting harder and harder to develop or produce products for users with particular needs – such as my professorial wife – those users have to make do with either improvised or older equipment… and risk being termed dinosaurs and out of date,

In the end… newer isn’t always better; it’s always only newer.

Complete Piracy at Last

It’s now official.  According to my editor and Macmillan Company, the parent of Tor Books, every single one of my titles has now appeared somewhere as pirated edition, in some form or another.  I’d almost like to claim this as a singular distinction.  I can’t. Macmillan also believes that every single book they’ve published in recent years – something like the last three decades – has appeared in pirated editions of some sort.

I can’t say I’m surprised.  Every time I attempt to check up on how my books are doing, I discover website after website offering free downloads of everything I’ve ever written, including versions of titles that never were issued in electronic format and even those that haven’t been in print in those particular editions offered in more than twenty years.  I could spend every minute of every day trying to chase them down… without much success.  So I grit my teeth and bear it.

Ah… the wonders of the electronic age.

Coincidentally, and unsurprisingly, the sales of paperback mass-market fiction books have also begun to decline.  Part of this is likely due in part to the collapse of a section of the wholesale distribution system, but that shrinkage doesn’t account for most of it, because it’s also occurring in the case of titles and authors who were never distributed widely on a wholesale basis, and whose books were largely sold only through bookstores. This hasn’t been so obvious in the F&SF field, because, while the average paperback print run has decreased, the number of paperback titles has increased slightly, but according to knowledgeable editors, the decrease is happening pretty much across the board, and some very big name authors – far bigger names than mine – have seen significant decreases in paperback book sales… and that’s without a corresponding increase in e-book sales.  Obviously, this isn’t true for every single author, and it’s impossible to determine for newly published authors because, if they haven’t published a book before, how can one accurately determine if their paperback sales are falling off from those of their previous book?

Despite all the talk, it appears that the popular mantra that information and entertainment need to be free remains in force for a small but significant fraction of former book buyers – even if such “free editions”  reduce authors’ incomes and result in publishers eliminating yet more mid-list authors because declining sales have made them unprofitable, or even money-losing.

The other day I came across an outraged comment about the price of an e-book version of my own Imager’s Challenge. The would-be reader was outraged that the electronic version was “only” a few dollars less than the hard-cover edition, especially since the paperback edition won’t be out for four months or so.  Somehow, it doesn’t seem to penetrate that while paper may be the single largest component of “physical” publishing costs, it still only amounts to something like 10-15% of the publisher’s cost of producing a book, i.e., a few dollars. Even without paper, the other costs remain, and they’re substantial – and publishing remains, as I have written, time and time again, a very low margin business. That’s why publishers really don’t want to cannibalize their hardcover revenues by undercutting the hardcover prices before the paperback version is on the shelves, especially given the decline in paperback sales.

There are many problems with piracy, including the fact that authors essentially get screwed, but the biggest one for readers seems to be overlooked.  The more piracy exists and the wider-spread it becomes, the less the choice readers will have in finding well-written, well-edited books, and especially of books that are not popular best-sellers.  The multi-million selling popular books – and the “popcorn books,” as my wife calls them – will survive piracy.  The well-written books for smaller audiences won’t.  So readers could very well be left with dwindling choices… and scrambling through thousands of self-published e-volumes, most of which are and will be poorly written and unedited in search of that rare “gem” – a good and different book that doesn’t appeal to everyone.

But… after all, information and entertainment want to be free.

The Instant Disaster Society?

Last Thursday, the stock market took its single biggest one day drop in its history, somewhere slightly over a thousand points, as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Index.  While the market recovered sixty to seventy percent of that drop before the close Thursday, the financial damage across the world was not inconsiderable.  Did this happen because Greece is still close to a financial meltdown, or because economic indicators were weak?   No… while the leading cause or precipitating factor may have been a typographical error – a trader entered a sell order for $16 BILLION of exchange futures, instead of a mere $16 million, there are a number of other possibilities, but the bottom line [literally] was that, whatever the cause, all the automated and computerized trading engines immediately reacted – and the market plummeted.  Later, the NASDEQ canceled a number of trades, but that was long after the damage had been done.

From the Terminator movies onward, there have been horror stories about computers unleashing doomsday, but the vast majority of these have concerned nuclear and military scenarios – not world economic collapse.  While I don’t fall into the “watch out for those evil computers” camp, I have always been and remained greatly concerned about the growth and uses of so-called “expert systems” – in all areas of society, largely because computers are the perfect servants – they do exactly what their programming tells them to do, even if the result will be disastrous.

For example, Toyota is now having all sorts of problems with runaway acceleration.  When this first occurred, my question was simple enough:  Why didn’t the drivers either shift into neutral or turn off the ignition.  Apparently, it turns out, at least some of them may not have been able to, not quickly, because they had keyless ignition systems.  Yet the automakers are talking about cars that will be not only keyless but also totally electronic, that is, even the shifting will be electronic and not physical/manual.  And if the electronics malfunction, exactly how will a driver be able to quickly “kill” the system?  Let’s think that one over for a bit.

President Obama and the health care reformers want all medical records to be electronically available, both for cost-saving purposes and for ease of access.  The problem with that kind of ease of access is that it also offers greater ease of hacking and tampering, and, I’m sorry, no system that offers the kind of ease the “reformers” are proposing can be made hacker-proof.  The access and security requirements are mutually antithetical. Years ago, Sandra Bullock starred in a movie called “The Net,” and while many of the computer references are outdated and almost laughable, one aspect of the movie was not and remains all too plausibly real.  At least two characters die because their medical records are hacked, and changed.  In addition, national databases are manipulated and identities switched.  Now… the computer experts will say that these sorts of things can be guarded against… and they can be, but will they?  Security costs money, and good security costs a lot of money, and people use computers to cut costs, not to increase them.

As far as economics go, now that an “accident” has shown just how vulnerable securities markets are to inadvertent manipulation, how long before some terrorist or other extremist group figures out how to duplicate the effect?  And then all the programmed trading computers will blindly execute their trades… and we’ll get an even bigger disaster.


Because we’ve become an instant-reaction society, and electronic systems magnify the effect of either system glitches or human error. Those programmed securities trading computers were designed to take advantage of market fluctuations on a micro if not a nano-second basis.  For better or worse, they make decisions faster than any human trader could possibly make them – and they do so based on data that may or may not be accurate.

We’re seeing the same thing across society.  Today’s young people are being trained to react, rather than to think.  Instead of letters or even email, they use Twitter.  Instead of bridge or old fashioned board games like Risk or Diplomacy, they prefer fast-acting, instant reaction videogames with a premium on speed.  More and more of the younger generation cannot form or express complex concepts, even as technology is taking us into an ever more complex world.  Business has a greater and greater emphasis on short-term gain and profits.  People want instant satisfaction.

The societal response to the increase in speed across society is to use computers and electronic systems to a greater and greater extent – but, as happened last Thursday, what happens when one’s faithful and obedient electronic servants do exactly what their inputs dictate that they’re supposed to do – and the result is disaster?

Do we really want – and can our society survive – a world where a few high-speed mistakes can destroy more than a trillion dollars worth of assets in seconds… or do even worse damage than that?  Not to mention one where thinking is passé… or for the old fogies of an earlier generation… and where all that matters is instant [and shallow] communications and short-term results that may well result in long-term disaster.

Stupid Questions/Bureaucratic Catch-22s

A few weeks ago, the Canadian science fiction writer Peter Watts was convicted of “assaulting” U.S. border guards because he failed to listen/heed instructions to remain in his car when he was pulled over for a search at a border crossing.  Although the guards’ testimony that Watts had physically assaulted them was refuted, Watts was found guilty because, under the law, failure to follow instructions constituted “assault,” although the only action he took was to be stupid enough to get out of his car when he was told not to.  While he was fined and given a suspended sentence, as a now-convicted felon, Watts will henceforth be denied entry to the United States, and, if he were careless enough to sneak in and were discovered, he’d be in much more serious trouble.  While more than a few readers and supporters were outraged at Watts’s treatment, Watts and others were even more outraged at a law that classes “failure to obey” the same as assault.

Unfortunately, this sort of legal trickery and legerdemain has a long and less than honorable history in the United States, and probably elsewhere in the world.  The American justice establishment has found a number of indirect ways to place people in custody and otherwise convict and sentence them.  Perhaps the most well-known was the conviction of the gangster Al Capone, not for the murders, fraud, and mayhem he perpetrated, but for, of all things, income tax evasion.

In 1940 the Congress passed, and the president signed the Alien Registration Act, otherwise known as the Smith Act, which made illegal, among other things, either the membership in any organization which advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government or even helping anyone who belonged to such an organization.  In effect, that meant the government could legally prosecute anyone who had ever been a member of the Communist party or anyone who ever helped anyone who had ever been a member of that party with any party-related activities, no matter how trivial. Initially, the Act was used only against those who had actually been involved in such activities, but in the late 1940s, the FBI and Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities charged thousands of Americans with violation of the provisions of the Smith Act. If someone admitted helping another who had belonged to the Communist Party, they could theoretically spend up to 20 years in jail.  If they denied it and proof was found otherwise, they were guilty of perjury and could also go to jail.  Eventually, the Supreme Court declared many of the more far-reaching interpretations and prosecutions under the law unconstitutional, but not before hundreds of people had been sent to jail or had their lives and livelihoods destroyed, either directly or indirectly, for what often amounted to association with friends and business associates.

Flash to the present.  According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Form No. 1651-0111 asks the following questions:

Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage, or in terrorist activities, or genocide, or between 1933 and 1945, were involved in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?

Are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?

Now… it’s a safe bet that no one will ever check the “yes” box following either one of these questions, and many people will ask why the government bothers with asking such stupid questions.

The government knows no one will ever admit to either set or acts or intentions.  But… if anyone is ever caught even doing something immoral, not necessarily illegal, if the prosecutors can’t come up with as much evidence as they’d like to lock someone away, they can dig out the handy-dandy form and charge the “entrant” in question with perjury, etc.  It’s effectively a form of after-the-fact bureaucratic insurance.

Personally, I can’t say that it exactly reinforces my confidence in American law enforcement’s ability to find and prosecute the worst offenders when every immigrant who even shop-lifted or visited an escort service could be locked away.  But then, they did lock up Big Al, even if they couldn’t prove a thing against him on the worst crimes he ordered or committed.  So… maybe I shouldn’t complain.  Still… Peter Watts is now a felon for what amounts to stupidity, or at the least, lack of common sense, although he never threatened anyone or lifted a hand against either guard.

Conservative Suicide/Stupidity?

As many of you know, I live in Utah, and as most of you may not, I was the Legislative Director for William Armstrong, one of the most conservative congressmen and senators of his time, as well as the staff director for Ken Kramer, his successor in the House – also one of the most conservative congressmen, not to mention being Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the U.S. EPA during the first Reagan administration.  These days, however, even as a registered Republican, I seldom vote for Republicans, and what follows may explain one of the reasons why.

Utah’s two U.S. senators are Bob Bennett and Orin Hatch, both conservative Republicans, and according to the various political ratings, they’re among the most conservative in the Senate.  BUT… they’re not “perfect,” with Bennett receiving “only” an 84% rating and Hatch only an 88% rating from the ultra-conservative American Conservative Union. According to recent polls, over 70% of the GOP delegates to the Utah state Republican convention believe that both Hatch and Bennett should be replaced because they’re not conservative enough.  Bennett is up for re-election and probably will not even win his party’s nomination.  He might not even survive this week’s coming party convention.

Now… although I certainly don’t believe in or support many of their policies and votes, I can see where others might… and might wish for all their votes to follow “conservative” principles – but to throw out a three-term conservative incumbent over such ratings?  Does it really make any sense?

No… it doesn’t, and that’s not because I’m a great fan of either senator.  I’m not.  But here’s why replacing Bennett – or Hatch – is totally against the so-called conservatives’ own best interests.

First, the ratings are based on “political litmus test” votes, often on issues that indicate ideology and don’t represent votes on bills that actually might make a difference.  Second, the “difference” between Bob Bennett’s 84% rating and a perfect 100% rating represents all of four votes taken over the entire year of 2009.  Second, seniority in the Senate represents power.  It determines who chairs or who is the ranking minority member on every committee and subcommittee, and that helps determine not only what legislation is considered, but when it’s considered, and what’s actually included in it.  The Senate is an extremely complex body, and it takes years even to truly understand its workings.  To toss out an incumbent who is predominantly conservative, but not “perfectly” conservative, in favor of a challenger who may not even win an election, but who, if he does, has little knowledge of the Senate, and less power, is not an act of conscience, but one of stupidity.  Third, no matter how conservative [or how liberal] a senator is, each senator is restricted by the rules of the body to voting on what is presented. In the vast, vast, majority of cases, that means that the vote of an “imperfect” conservative can be no different from that of a “perfect” conservative.

I can certainly see, and have no problem, with conservatives targeting a senator who seldom or never votes in what they perceive as their interest, but to remove a sitting senator with power and influence who votes “your way” 80-90% of the time in favor of someone who may not win the election, and who will have little understanding or power if he does… that, I have to say, is less than rational.

In the interests of fairness, I will point out that the left wing of the Democratic Party is also guilty of the same sort of insane quest for ideological purity, and that the majority of Americans are fed up with these sorts of extremist shenanigans.  But in the current political climate, where most Americans are fed up with Congress, they may well vote to throw whoever’s in office right out of office… along with Bob Bennett.  And then, next year, when legislative matters are even worse from their point of view… they’ll be even angrier… even though almost none of the voters will admit that everyone wants more from government, in one way or another, than anyone wants to pay for – except for those on the extreme, extreme right, and they want no government at all… and that’s a recipe for anarchy in a world as technologically and politically complex as ours.