Sunday, June 20, 2004

Does God Belong on the Stump?
Why Politicians Are Not Mathematicians

There is an interesting article posted at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  It was first posted in December 2000, but from the content, it sounds as though is was written before the 2000 election.  Yes, it is old, by political standards; but it is not yesterday's newspaper.  It is just as pertinent today as it was before the 2000 election.  I've selected some excerpts of general interest.  I then refer back to another "old" paper,  Mathematical Devices for Getting a Fair Share, first published in July 2000.  The original was in American Scientist, which requires a paid subscription.  Fortunately, the author (Dr. Theodore Hill) posted a copy on his web site.  In this post, I point out a curious connection between religion-in-politics and mathematics-in-politics, show why neither is commonly pursued in a rigorous fashion in political arenas, and show how the two can lead to the same kind of solution to social problems.  Unfortunately, this also demonstrates why the best solution -- whether religious or mathematical -- is rarely feasible in a competitive political process.

Does God Belong on the Stump?
A Conversation with Stephen Carter, Charles Krauthammer, and Leo Ribuffo
Posted: Saturday, December 2, 2000

[...] One is that for me as a voter, if a candidate wants to speak about his religion, that suggests to me that he wants me to think that religion is a relevant criterion, that I am learning something about him because I am learning something about his religion. The information I would like to be getting is, “This is an important part of me. It helps form who I am, and therefore, when I reason about the world and about important issues of public policy, my religious faith is a part of my reasoning process.” I think that a candidate who is going to talk about his own faith owes us more than just saying, “Isn't it neat that I'm a religious guy?” That candidate owes us at least some discussion of how his faith affects his thinking about public issues, because only in that way can we judge its relevance. Now, one might object that to make candidates tell us how their faith affects their reasoning gets far too deeply into the personal, protected sphere of religion. If that is so, then they shouldn't talk about it in the first place. The candidate who says his religious faith matters ought to give us some idea of how it matters.

[...]  The one that most interests me at the moment is that he felt a Christian party would be an oxymoron. Why? Because if it were truly Christian, he said, it would preach the entire gospel -- even the hard parts -- and therefore get no votes. If it were truly a party wanting to win, it would craft a kind of modified gospel, emphasizing some parts, omitting or muting others, compromising the purity of the faith in order to prevail in the election, and then it would not be truly Christian. He thought this would be a very bad thing. I agree that it is a very bad thing, and it is what tends to happen.

Later in the article, Leo Ribuffo -- a professor of History -- gives us an overview of the religious leanings of several dead presidents, such as the following, which reminds us of the influence of Deism  in early American politics:

The controversy over the religion of the Founders could be clarified if we could decide what we mean by the Founders. The American Revolution was won by an odd coalition. It was supported disproportionately by deist Enlightenment figures on the one hand and early evangelicals, the heirs to the First Great Awakening, on the other. It seems to me that the Constitution reflects a compromise between those groups. Lieberman said that the First Amendment was not intended to protect people from religion. Well, it might depend on which of the Founders you asked. Some surely would have believed that it was intended to do that. This is the exception I referred to earlier.

Of the deist-influenced Founders, Washington was among the most conventionally religious and started our tradition of civil religion, adding to the presidential oath, for example, “So help me God.” The least conventional was Thomas Jefferson, who said that he was a true Christian, by which he meant a follower of the ideals of Christ stripped of the mythology. Jefferson was a founder of the Democratic Party, which from the outset was more religiously diverse and more secular than its Federalist, Whig, or Republican foes.

Another interesting reminder is this:

It was Richard Nixon, not Carter or Reagan, who brought an overtly partisan religiosity back to the White House. He was a Quaker, raised with substantial doses of evangelicalism, and by the time he was an adult he had put together his own religious mix of Norman Vincent Peale's positive thinking plus Billy Graham's evangelicalism. It might seem incongruous, but it was no more so than most Americans' versions of Protestantism. Nixon accepted Graham's open endorsement in 1972, held religious services in the White House, and used religious connections to underscore support for what he liked to call “square America.”

The reference to Nixon reminds us that claims of religiosity are no guarantee against unethical behavior.  On second thought, maybe that is not significant: we hardly need a reminder of that.  On the other hand, claims of religiosity to not guarantee unethical behavior:

Carter was a sophisticated lay theologian, a born-again Baptist, mostly liberal in his theology, and seriously influenced by neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who warned that individuals and nations should beware of the sin of pride. Yet he was presented over and over as a holy roller from Hicksville. And that partly explains why he appeared in Playboy. The official explanation was that he was trying to explain the sin of pride to the ungodly. In fact, he was trying to show a cosmopolitan audience that he was not just a hick. There was an uproar of unimaginable proportions. The wisest response in my view came from Martin Luther King, Sr.: to Carter's remark that he had lusted in his heart, King replied, “They can't kill you for looking.” Carter's famous “malaise” speech is, in fact, an interesting Niebuhrian attempt to call Americans back from their pride and their greed.

See this  for a review of Niebuhrian theology, and this  for a copy of Carter's speech.  Carter was a sincerely religious man, but he lost.  This brings me to my point: people don't want to be called back from their pride and their greed

Everybody loves a winner, and the American stereotype is that winners are proud.  The American tradition is this: to the victor belongs the spoils.  The winner-take-all philosophy is perhaps the most important distinction between American political though and that of Europe, where an expectation of compromise is the starting point for negotiations.  We Americans often look down on our European cousins for their quaint, outmoded ways.

 As it happens, though, the notion of compromise is quaint, indeed, but it also has a solid mathematical foundation.  The paper that demonstrates this is available as a 83KB PDF file.  The illustrations are contained in a separate .tar compressed file, which is almost 50MB.

Mathematical Devices for Getting a Fair Share
by Theodore P. Hill
Volume 88, No. 4
July-August 2000

Since the dawn of history man has bickered and battled over fair distribution of resources, dividing estates, territories and the spoils of war. Through the ages such dilemmas were typically resolved unilaterally by kings (Solomon and the baby), by judges or simply by force, and few truly logical solution methods evolved. In the last fifty years, however, a number of mathematical devices have been discovered which other elegant, practical, and often surprisingly simple resolutions to many fair-division problems.

The oldest known written fair-division problem is an estate-division issue from the 2nd century AD Babylonian Talmud (Figure 1). A man dies owing 100, 200, and 300 zuz to each of three claimants, A, B, and C respectively. In most modern bankruptcy proceedings the claimants receive shares of the estate proportional to their individual claims, no matter what the size of the estate. In the Talmudic problem, A would always receive one-sixth of the total estate, B one-third, and C one-half. The solution presented in the Talmud is also this proportional one if the total estate value is 300 zuz (see Figure 1), but if the estate is only 100 zuz, each claimant receives equal shares. And even more curiously, if the estate is 200, then A receives 50 and B and C receive equal amounts of 75 each, even though their claims are not equal.

The logic of the Talmudic solution remained mysterious until 1984 when Israeli mathematicians Aumann and Maschler discovered that these seemingly inconsistent settlement methods actually anticipated the modern “nucleolus” solution of a single 3-person cooperative game. Roughly speaking, the nucleolus is that solution which minimizes the largest dissatisfaction among all possible coalitions. [...] [emphasis mine]

The Corpus Callosum is fond of making connections.  What is the connection between religion-in-politics and mathematics-in-politics?  The article, Does God Belong on the Stump?, makes the point that "if it [a Christian party] were truly Christian, he said, it would preach the entire gospel -- even the hard parts -- and therefore get no votes."  And the article, Mathematical Devices for Getting a Fair Share, makes the point that the logical solution to fair-division problems is the solution that "minimizes the largest dissatisfaction among all possible coalitions."  Yet, a politician who followed this method would get no votes.  He or she would not be perceived as a winner, in the American stereotype.  Fair-division problems are common in politics, but the truly fair solutions don't make anyone especially happy; instead, they minimize unhappiness.  This is one reason that politicians are not mathematicians.

The other reason is that most politicians are not smart enough to understand this kind of thing.  (Al Gore was, but he lost.)  Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech was characterized as an effort to "call Americans back from their pride and their greed."  In other words, it was an attempt to introduce fairness into the political process.  By advocating a limit on energy imports, he also was advocating a society of mutual sacrifice.  No one was interested.  Such limits would minimize the number of persons who would loose out, but it would create no winners. 

Carter's notion was not based upon a mathematically rigorous fair-division solution; rather, it was based upon a Biblical motion of modesty.  As it happens, both the Talmudic fair-division approach, and the Biblical repudiation of greed, lead to roughly the same outcome: no clear winners, but no big losers. 

Is that such a bad thing?  Apparently, American voters think it is.

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