Saturday, October 20, 2012

Presentation on the 2012 Presidential Election

Several weeks ago, the Head of my school asked me to address the entire school community on the topic of the 2012 Presidential Election, to share some non-partisan insights accessible to 6th graders and engaging for 12th graders—all in 12 minutes or less. While crafting my presentation, I decided to offer students a brief primer on the types of issues the candidates are debating and on the principles that underlie the candidates' positions. More importantly, I encouraged students to ask two questions over and over again when studying the election; these questions reflect the open-minded approach I hope they take when engaged in the hard work of becoming informed citizens.

I delivered the presentation this past Thursday, and below are my remarks. I refer to images and charts, which appeared on slides behind me, but do not, in general, appear here.

Good morning.

Consider, for a moment, the images we’ve seen over the past few years that speak to the desire of peoples around to be free. In 2009, students in Iran took to the streets to demand free elections; state police quickly suppressed them. In 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to end one-party rule in China. He wasn’t able to receive the prize—this was the chair he would have occupied during the awards ceremony—as he remains in a Chinese prison. And in 2011, protests in Egypt led to the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak and, perhaps, to the emergence of a democracy there.

Indeed, in most of the world, people cannot freely choose their leaders. Billions live without the ability to learn about democratic rights, let alone exercise them. Of course, such is not the case here in the United States, where we have a vibrant democracy; and politics—especially Presidential politics—are a national pastime. It is in light of our good fortune, then, that this morning I’d like to talk with you about this year’s Presidential election—a topic about which we here at Newark Academy are wonderfully passionate, as the IB Theater class’s presentation several weeks ago demonstrated.

You already know the basics: On Tuesday, November 6th, Americans will head to the polls in cities and towns across the nation and cast their ballots for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. If the election proceeds smoothly, we should know by the following morning who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years, that is, who will serve as head of state and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

If you’ve watched the debates, you are well aware of the major issues in this year’s election—jobs, health care, immigration, the Middle East, social security, taxes, and so many more. To help you think about these issues, you might consider how they fall into three common categories: economic, social, and foreign policy. Economic issues are those that relate to the revenues and expenditures of the Federal government as well as to jobs and the regulation of businesses. Social issues are those that relate to the personal lives of citizens and to their interactions with each other, including laws regulating abortion and marriage. Foreign policy issues relate to how the US defends itself and interacts with other nations.

Let’s now take a look at a few of the principles that tend to underlie the positions that Obama and Romney hold in these three areas. I also want to highlight some of the principles they hold in common.

On economic issues, both candidates value the importance of a robust market economy wherein individuals are able to support and better themselves and their families. Obama tends to favor more regulation of economic activity in the interest of protecting workers and the environment, while Romney tends to favor less regulation of economic activity in the interest of economic growth and job creation.

On social issues, both candidates value protecting citizens’ civil rights and ensuring that all children have access to good schools. Obama tends to champion a more active government that directly supports the needs of the citizenry, while Romney tends to champion a smaller government that allows the citizenry to act without as much support or restraint.

On foreign policy issues, both candidates value the role that America plays in the world community and seek to employ the tools of foreign policy in the interest of peace and national security. Obama tends to favor negotiation with other nations and cooperation with international bodies such as the United Nations, while Romney tends to favor international action in which the United States takes a leadership role in defending American interests abroad.

These charts, of course, are oversimplifications. Each candidate holds many more principles than I could share this morning. And both candidates have complex positions that do not always flow from these principles. Additionally, both candidates subscribe to still other principles that I did not mention—for example, principles that relate to their interpretations of the US Constitution and, thus, to the types of people they might appoint to the Supreme Court.

To truly understand which candidate shares your principles and will pursue the policies you favor, you will need to continue to engage in the hard work of becoming an informed citizen. To do this, you might study the candidates’ platforms, view their debates, and look into their backgrounds and characters. And as you read, watch, and listen, I encourage you to ask yourself two questions over and over again.

The first is this: What are the best arguments in favor of the position with which I currently disagree? This question might, at first, seem counter-intuitive? Why, you might wonder, should you spend time looking for and considering the best arguments of your opponents?

My answer is simple: We may have a lot to learn from those with whom we disagree. Our political culture encourages us to reduce complex issues to “sound bites,” to maximize differences between candidates rather than to identify shared values. As a result of this, we miss opportunities to discover the complexity in issues and the importance of multiple perspectives in developing solutions. Asking ourselves to consider the best arguments from those with whom we disagree forces us to confront, and perhaps to learn from, a plurality of ideas.

As you know, many good, smart people on both sides of the political aisle have compelling arguments in defense of their principles and the policies that flow from them. Yes, people do disagree on the proper role of the Federal government in the lives of the nation’s citizens and on the proper role of the United States in the world today. But it would be unwise to dismiss the ideas of those who disagree with us—be they Liberals or Conservatives—because we are too proud or simply disinclined.

The second question is this: How does the presentation of an idea influence my opinion of it?

To illustrate how the presentation of an idea can shape one’s opinion, I’d like to share two 30-second advertisements from this year’s election, both on the topic of the economy. The commercials demonstrate how campaigns manipulate the presentation of information to persuade the viewer.

The first commercial was produced by the Obama campaign:

And the second commercial was produced by the Romney campaign:

As you likely noticed, in Obama’s ad, the natural frequency and reverberation of Romney’s voice are changed so that he sounds hollow. And in Romney’s ad, ominous music plays as the viewer is confronted with facts and video designed to make the President appear out of touch.

Viewing campaign commercials back-to-back, as we just did, magnifies the types of manipulations commonly used in political advertisements. Oftentimes in political discourse, however, persuasive language is used much more subtly. Consider, for example, the chart I displayed earlier. You may have noticed that I wrote that Obama tends to champion an “active” government and Romney a “smaller” government. I used those words because, I believe, they cast each candidate’s position in its best light. Instead of “active” had I written “inefficient” to describe Obama’s vision, I would have negatively skewed your opinion of it. And instead of “smaller” had I written “uncaring” to describe Romney’s vision, I would have done the same.

By being aware of how we and others—candidates, commentators, experts, and even friends—use language when talking about political issues, we can recognize emotional appeals and linguistic obfuscations. And, as a result, we can focus on ideas and issues.

Finally, before I finish my presentation, I’d like to share two important details to keep in mind as you study the election.

First, remember that the President is elected not by the majority of voters but instead by the Electoral College—a body of 538 individuals, or electors, who represent the states and who formally chose the President and Vice-President. Here’s a map that shows the number of electors each state chooses. As you can see, populous states, like Texas and California, choose more electors than states with smaller populations, like Vermont or North Dakota.

This is all pretty straightforward. What’s interesting about the Electoral College, however, is that in all but two states the candidate who receives the majority of the votes in a state will win all of that state’s Electoral votes. For example, if Obama receives 51% of the votes in Florida and Romney receives 49%, Obama will win all of Florida’s 29 Electoral votes. States in which the race is close are called swing states, as winning them can easily “swing” an election. You see, a candidate needs 270 Electoral Votes in order to win the contest; winning Florida, then, would provide a candidate with more than 10% of the Electoral Votes needed to become President. That’s why you hear a lot about Florida and other swing states in the news; and it’s why neither Obama nor Romney have come through New Jersey recently. Polls predict that Obama will receive a majority of the votes in New Jersey, and thus gain all 14 of our state’s Electoral votes. New Jersey isn’t a swing state, and, as a result, it’s of little interest to the candidates.

The second detail is a bit simpler: We spend a lot of our time and energy talking about the Presidential election, but the President is only one part of the Federal government. Moreover, the Presidential race is only one of thousands of races that will be decided in November. In addition to the Presidential election, Americans will determine who will fill 33 of 100 seats in the US Senate and all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives. Additionally, thousands of races for positions on state and local legislatures, councils, and boards will be decided. Simply put, the outcome of the Presidential election matters a lot, but it’s hardly the only political game in town; for many of us, the outcome of local and state elections will have a greater impact on our daily lives than the outcome of the Presidential race.

To conclude: As you continue to study the election in your Humanities classes and learn from friends, parents, the news media, and the candidates themselves, I hope you find the ideas I’ve shared this morning useful—particularly the questions I encourage you to ask yourself this election season:
What are the best arguments in favor of the position with which I currently disagree? and
How does the presentation of an idea influence my opinion of it?

If you are eligible to vote—as some of you seniors are—please exercise your right. And even if you aren’t eligible to vote just yet, you should feel awfully lucky that you reside in a country in which, thanks to the efforts of generations past, you can speak freely, debate openly, and, ultimately, join with your fellow citizens to create your future together.

Thank you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Thinking Logarithmically

One of my students recently pointed me to an article about a newly published study on a cognitive trait I had never before considered—the scale we employ to represent and store sense perception data. The article begins thus:
Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they're likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that's because it's actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly: 30 is 1, and 32 is 9, so logarithmically, the number halfway between them is 31, or 3. Neural circuits seem to bear out that theory. For instance, psychological experiments suggest that multiplying the intensity of some sensory stimuli causes a linear increase in perceived intensity.
The MIT researchers who conducted the study suggest an evolutionary basis for our tendency to employ a logarithmic scale when storing sensory data. I wonder how this study might inform the design of instruments that traditionally rely on arithmetic scales (e.g. scales in social science questionnaires). Should social science instrument designers employ logarithmic scales instead?