Mike Kueber's Blog

March 23, 2012

Energy independence

Filed under: Economics — Mike Kueber @ 10:09 am
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America has been pissing and moaning about its energy dependence since Nixon and Carter days.  With the price of gas approaching $4 again this spring, we are again bemoaning our apparent inability to restrain our profligate consumption that many compare to a drug addiction.

Seemingly flying under the media and political radar is the fact that the oil-shale fields in my home states of Texas and North Dakota have moved America sharply toward energy independence.  But this startling fact is being overlooked because the price of gas is high. 

The move toward energy independence was reported in an article titled “Crude Awakening” in Time magazine this week:   

  • It may be hard to believe as gas prices break new records, but the U.S. is actually in the midst of an energy boom. In 2011 domestic oil production reached its highest level since 2003, and one state–shale-oil-shilling North Dakota–pumped more crude than entire OPEC countries like Ecuador. For the first time in more than 60 years, we’re selling more petroleum products than we buy[Bolding mine.]  That’s great news for the domestic oil and gas industry–and the roughnecks and engineers it employs–but the rest of us won’t reap many rewards. President Obama recently vowed to “reduce our nation’s vulnerability to the ups and downs of the global oil market,” but it won’t be easy: the U.S. spent a whopping $331.6 billion importing crude last year. And with increased demand from China pushing up the price of oil, that bill will only get bigger–which means high gas prices could continue to be a drag on the economy. Oil is a global commodity, and as long as the U.S. needs crude, we’ll never be truly energy independent.

By contrast, a related Associated Press article published yesterday in the San Antonio Express-News, was headlined, “No dip in price with more drilling,” and it focused on the inability of America and its politicians to control the price of gas:  

  • It’s the political cure-all for high gas prices: Drill here, drill now. But more U.S. drilling has not changed how deeply the gas pump drills into your wallet, math and history show.  A statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production by the Associated Press shows no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump. If more domestic oil drilling worked as politicians say, you’d now be paying about $2 a gallon for gasoline. Instead, you’re paying the highest prices ever for March.

As usual, the NY Times can be counted on to provide the most comprehensive reporting on an issue and today’s edition delivered contained a wide-ranging review, including a discussion of oil-field fracking and a description of the policies of the Bush-41 administration that are paying huge dividends for America today.  Also included in the NY Times article were informative graphics that revealed America imported 60% of its liquid-fuel needs in 2005 and only 45% in 2011 (and projected to be 38% by 2022).  Thus, America still has a ways to go to achieve energy independence despite Time magazine’s report that, “For the first time in more than 60 years, we’re selling more petroleum products than we buy.”  This statement is misleading and should have been explained.

My major concern, however, with the media’s coverage this past week is the failure to emphasize that, although America no longer has the power, either through its production or consumption, to control gas prices, there is a huge difference between sending $300 billion to OPEC countries for imports and keeping that $300 billion in America and letting it percolate throughout the American economy.

Every little bit helps.

March 22, 2012

For dieting, all all calories equal

Filed under: Fitness — Mike Kueber @ 3:56 am
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When I was a kid, most people dieted by counting their calories.  Since then, however, that strategy has been ridiculed as simplistic and old-fashioned.  In its place, new diets have focused on either (a) burning more calories through exercise, or (b) reducing the consumption of certain types of calories – fats, protein, carbohydrates, or alcohol. Now, according to an article in the NY Times today, we have come full circle to realize that “a calorie is a calorie” in whatever form it takes.    Yes, some calories may be better for your health, but to lose weight, the formula remains what it has always been – i.e., consume fewer calories than you burn off.

Incidentally, a gram of fat has 9 calories, a gram of protein has 4 calories, a gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories, and a gram of alcohol has 7 calories.  Thus, a gram of fat will provide your body with more than twice as much energy as a gram of protein or carbs, but that is not a good thing because your body will store as body fat any consumed calories that you don’t burn off.


March 21, 2012

Arranged and forced marriages

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 4:30 am
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Although it may seem that arranged marriages are antediluvian practices that no longer exist in modern life, I was surprised to learn from two Indian-American friends in San Antonio (one Muslim and the other Hindu) that the practice continues to thrive within their communities in America.  In fact, Wikipedia makes an elaborate defense of the practice:

  • Proponents of arranged marriage often feel that people can quite easily be influenced by emotional infatuation to make an illogical choice.  In these societies, the intragenerational relationship of the family is much more valued than the marital relationship. The whole purpose of the marriage is to have a family.  Even if the couple does not love each other at first, a greater understanding between the two would develop, aided by their often similar socioeconomic, religious, political, and cultural backgrounds.  Proponents may also feel that marriages simply based on romance are doomed to failure due to the partners having unreasonable expectations of each other and with the relationship having little room for improvement.  Furthermore, supporters of arranged marriages believe that parents can be trusted to make a match that is in the best interests of their children. They hold that parents have much practical experience to draw from and not be misguided by emotions and hormones. 

But the practice of arranged marriages is so antithetical to Western values, as is polygamy, that there is an inclination to prohibit it.  In the West, “love marriages” are considered to be the only civilized option.  The problem is that any prohibition on arranged marriages would not only be inconsistent with Western tolerance, but would also impinge on freedom of religion.  That is why governments attempt to make a distinction between arranged marriage (OK) and forced marriages (not OK). 

According to a recent article in the NY Times, titled “On Human Bondage,” a forced marriage was one in which a party married under “physical or psychological pressure.”  By contrast, an arranged marriage was one in which “someone other than the couple getting married makes the selection of the persons to be wed, meanwhile curtailing or avoiding the process of courtship.” 

Obviously, distinguishing between arranging a marriage and psychologically pressuring one to marry is problematic at best, but that hasn’t stopped Great Britain from trying.  The Times article reports that Great Britain is criminalizing forced marriages, but suggests that this move “has been more about savvy politics than values. And Cameron’s political opportunism may backfire by alienating British Muslims and undermining his government’s commitment to multiculturalism.”  Furthermore, some advocacy groups argue that criminalization could discourage victims from speaking out for fear that their relatives will be prosecuted under the law.  In response, the government has asserted that a forced marriage is “little more than slavery.”

The author of the Times article, Huma Yusuf, concluded the article by suggesting that, “chances are, no legislation can be as effective in curtailing forced marriages as growing awareness and empowerment within the affected communities themselves.”  I agree.  Let’s hope that true conservatives will not countenance any effort by government to interject itself in the marital decisions of its citizens.

March 20, 2012

The battle of the sexes

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:54 am
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According to a spate of recent articles and books, the battle of the sexes is about over, and the fairer sex has won.  The latest such article is the cover story on this week’s Time magazine – titled “The Richer Sex,” and subtitled, “Women are overtaking men as America’s breadwinners.  Why that’s good for everyone.”    

According to the article, this battle result is essentially a fait accompli, almost like the notion that whites will become a minority in America sometime during this century.  Both notions are based on demographics that show surging minority populations amongst the young just as women are now surging in college attendance – 60% of all college students and a majority of those who earn doctorate and graduate degrees. 

Unfortunately, the article fails to examine why women are heading to college while men are not.  Instead it chooses to examine how women and men will deal with this power shift, and then attempts to ameliorate any male concern by unpersuasively suggesting that “if people come to think differently about money and power and gender roles, that everyone could come out ahead?”  

The article also warns that women should not assume victory and that there still remains work to do – “Some academics and women’s rights advocates talk about a stalled revolution and warn that a premature declaration of victory will reduce pressure on workplaces to improve pay and working conditions.”

An example of this ongoing effort appeared in the NY Times today, with an article that discussed a little known fact about ObamaCare – i.e., ObamaCare prohibits health insurers from charging women more for an insurance policy.    Of course, the Times frames this issue as, “Gender Gap persists in the cost of health insurance.”  This sounds like one of those ante-diluvium policies (like laws against sodomy) that needs to be extirpated.  Only if you read in the fine print of the article do you learn that insurers “charged women more than men because claims showed that women ages 19 to 55 tended to use more health care services. They are more likely to visit doctors, to get regular checkups, to take prescription drugs and to have certain chronic illnesses.”  And that doesn’t even include maternity costs.

The federal government already prohibits employers from charging female employees more for health insurance than they charge male employees.  ObamaCare takes this mandate to the next level and requires all private health insurers not only to charge men and women the same, but also to include maternity coverage in this one-size-fits-all plan.

Once you start down the road to requiring that businesses charge a “fair” amount to everyone, where do you stop?  Should life-insurance premiums consider whether a person is male/female or overweight?  Should car-insurance premiums consider whether the driver is 16-years old or 61-years old?  According to the Times article:

  • [ObamaCare] forbids insurers to consider many factors historically used in setting rates. Starting in 2014, insurers cannot charge higher rates to sick people, and they can vary rates based on age and tobacco use to only a limited degree.

I recently watched the new movie, Atlas Shrugged, and the foundering of America in that movie looked a lot like ObamaCare, with its emphasis on removing the free market from the process and substituting the judgment of “fairness” as decreed by Washington bureaucrats.  That is why the election of 2012 is so important.  It will be a referendum on whether Americans are prepared to go further down the road to socialism.

March 19, 2012

A Mormon baptism

Filed under: People,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 1:35 am
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Maureen Dowd, one of my favorite liberal columnists, recently opined that Mitt Romney seemed to be trying to separate himself from his religious beliefs.    That is not surprising since he is a devout Mormon and many Christians think of the Mormon religion (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) as a cult. 

Cult is defined as a religion that is considered as strange or extreme by the mainstream population.  If you dig deep enough, you could probably find things about most religions that are cultish, but Dowd took it upon herself in her column to focus on why her readers should consider Mormons to be a cult. 

No, she did not talk about the religion’s acceptance on polygamy in the 19th century.  And she didn’t mention its religious undergarments, which Mormons supposedly wear to remind themselves of sacred covenants.  Instead she focused on the Mormon belief that an individual cannot get to heaven without a Mormon baptism.  Because of this belief, Mormons have developed a practice for baptizing people, especially ancestor, who have already died. 

This baptizing practice became controversial when Mormons baptize people who aren’t ancestors – e.g., Elvis Presley or victims of the Holocaust.  According to Wikipedia, however, this controversy has caused the Mormons to stop the practice, but that didn’t stop Maureen Dowd from basing her column on the practice (or describing Romney’s new “7,400-square-foot home featuring an additional 3,600 square feet of finished underground space.”  I wonder if she has an ulterior motive.    

Incidentally, Mormons believe that baptism is effective only with total submersion.  I am always amazed when religions make an important distinction between things that obviously should not be significant.  For example, religions often make a similarly important distinction between whether children can be baptized.

Also incidentally, Dowd mentioned in her column that Romney was apparently flummoxed by his primary opponent Rick Santorum and his immigrant, blue-collar roots.  I find it interesting that Santorum can claim immigrant, blue-collar roots even though his parents were born in America and had white-collar jobs.  That reminds me of President Obama portraying himself a deserving affirmative-action baby even though both of his parents had doctorate degrees.

March 17, 2012

Sunday Book Review #67 – Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:45 pm
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Over a year ago, I blogged about intuition by comparing the viewpoints of two of my favorite authors – Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame and Malcolm Gladwell of Outliers fame.  Rand was not a fan of intuition and famously said:

  • As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.  Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation – or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single solid weight: self doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.”

By contrast, Gladwell in his book Blink describes intuition as mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information – something he calls thin-slicing.  He believes that many spontaneous decisions are as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones.  Gladwell believes experts are especially able to thin-slice, but this ability can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices, and stereotypes (even unconscious ones).  Experts can also be overloaded by too much information (e.g., analysis paralysis).

Thinking Fast and Slow takes essentially the same position as Gladwell’s book Blink, but it is much more in-depth and comprehensive.  Gladwell is relatively a subject-matter dilettante compared to Kahneman, who has won a Nobel Prize in Economics and has been studying this subject (decision-making) his entire life.

Kahneman does an especially good job in describing how fast and efficient intuition is, which he calls System 1.  But he also vividly describes the slower, lazy System 2, which monitors the functioning of System 1 and overrules it where necessary.  This overruling of System 1 by System 2 is necessary because, although System 1 is generally accurate, it makes lots of fundamental mistakes.

Individuals can’t do much to make their System 1 decisions more accurate, so ultimately they can improve their thinking and decision-making only by training their System 2 to be vigilant for common System 1 mistakes and to stop being so lazy.  The book is replete with examples of common System 1 errors, such as:

  • WYSIATI (what you see is all there is).  Instead of thinking about how limited our knowledge is, we assume that we already know all that is needed to make a decision.
  • Priming and framing.  Certain words prime our thinking, and the framing of an issue can control our decision.
  • The law of small numbers.  Our decisions are not restrained even though we have only small numbers.  Our bias is toward confidence instead of doubt.
  • Anchors.  Our thinking is significantly affected by the anchor number (starting point).  That is why you feel better about buying a $20 shirt that was previously $40 as compared to a $15 shirt that was previously $25, even though both shirts are essentially the same.

As I said, the book is filled with examples too many to mention.  The example that totally confuses me is called, “Causes trump statistics” or the Bayesian inference:

  • A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night.  Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city.  You are given the following data:
    • 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.
    • A witness identified the cab as Blue.  The court tested the reliability of the witness under the circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.
  • What was the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?

According to Kahneman, “The two sources of information can be combined by Bayes’s rule.  The correct answer is 41%.  However, you can probably guess what people do when faced with this problem: they ignore the base rate and go with the witness.  The most common answer is 80%.”  Count me the same as most people.

Early in his career, Kahneman was asked by the Israel government to create a high school textbook for teaching kids how to improve their decision-making.  For a bunch of bureaucratic reasons, the project was never completed.  Sounds like a great idea to me.  Thinking Fast and Slow is one of the most interesting, insightful books that I have read in a long time, and I believe most kids would benefit immensely from being exposed to the concepts.

Saturday Night at the Movies #17 – The Ides of March and Out of Sight, plus The Tree of Life

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:02 am
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In addition to starring in both movies, George Clooney wrote, produced, and directed The Ides of March

The Ides of March is a great political movie.  The dialogue reminded me of Aaron Sorkin’s writing in the TV show West Wing and the movie American President, with the political guys so smart and witty.   The difference is that Sorkin’s writing is more idealistic, with the liberal good guys ultimately doing the right thing.  By contrast, The Ides of March, which co-stars Ryan Gosling, reveals that even idealistic liberals can be compromised.  The movie received an 85% rating from Rotten Tomato.

Incidentally, the phrase Idea of March means March 15, which is the day that Julius Caesar was murdered.  In the case of this movie, I suspect that the murder victim was idealism.

Out of Sight is a 1998 cops & robbers movie starring Clooney as the robber and Jennifer Lopez as the cop.  Entertainment Weekly rated it as the sexiest movie of all time, and it earned a 92% rating from Rotten Tomatoes.  I’m not sure about the “sexiest” ranking because, as a started watching it, I realized I had seen it before and apparently it hadn’t made much of an impression on me – unlike Bad Company with Ellen Barkin and Lawrence Fishburne, which I remembered years later.  My second viewing of Out of Sight, however, was more satisfying than the first.  Clooney is at his Cary Grant best and JLo is as attractive as any woman in cinema. 

Until the endings of the movies, I would probably give a slight edge to The Ides of March, but the dramatically different endings reverse the order and make Out of Sight the one that I would want to see again.

 The Tree of Life, a 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture and earned an 84% Rotten Tomato rating from the critics, but I thought it stunk (and Rotten Tomato public viewers gave it a middling 60%).  Although most reviewers label the movie as a drama, it is better described as a quintessential art film.  Like modern or abstract art, I have no idea what it was about.  The movie’s only saving grace was that it was based in 1950’s Texas (a wonderful time and place) and it includes a drowning scene that appears to have been filmed at Barton Springs in Austin.

March 16, 2012

Navy Seals and affirmative action

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Military,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:16 pm
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Ever since the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the Navy Seals have been recognized as the ultimate warriors.  During a recent Happy Hour, a friend noted that 90% of the Seals were white.  That didn’t sound right because the U.S. military has been a leading proponent of diversity for many years. 

When I went to the internet, however, I confirmed that my friend’s fact was true (90% of the officers and 80% of the enlisted men).  Inexplicably, the Navy has allowed its premier fighting team to become more white than an NBA team is black.  But the Navy is moving now to end this travesty.  According to a Time magazine blog, the Navy was soliciting a private contract to help expose this opportunity to non-whites in order to achieve more SEAL diversity.  The solicitation read as follows:

  • Gaps exist in minority representation in both officer and enlisted ranks for Special Warfare operators. Diverse officers represent only ten percent of the officer pool (for example, African Americans represent less than 2% of SEAL officers). Diverse enlisted SEALs account for less than twenty percent of the total SEAL enlisted population. Naval Special Warfare is committed to fielding a force that represents the demographics of the nation it serves. This contract initiative seeks effective strategies to introduce high potential candidates from diverse backgrounds to the opportunities available in Naval Special Warfare.

This is the kind of affirmative action that I endorse – i.e., outreach.  There is no obvious reason why non-whites would not make as good a SEAL as whites do.  But I take issue with the comment that the Navy is committed to “fielding a force that represents the demographics of the nation that it serves.”  That sounds like a quota, and quotas have no place in the competitive process of selecting the most qualified individuals.


March 15, 2012

Do we need an Article V constitutional convention?

My conservative friend recently sent me a Townhall news article reporting that there is a political movement afoot to have a constitutional convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.    Although the U.S. Constitution provides for amendments to be initiated either by two-thirds of Congress or by two-thirds of the States (34), all previous proposed amendments have come from Congress.  Having an amendment come from the states is unchartered territory.  Regardless of how an amendment is initiated, it is enacted only when three-fourths of the states (38) ratify the amendment.

According to the Townhall article, the Article V movement is attempting to enact a constitutional amendment called The National Debt Relief Amendment (see below), which provides that “an increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.”  The proposed amendment specifically provides that “the convention to shall be entirely focused upon and exclusively limited to the subject matter of proposing for ratification an amendment to the Constitution providing that an increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.

Some opponents of a constitutional convention have expressed concern that it might turn into a “runaway” convention that goes beyond its initial charge and make additional, unscripted changes.  But proponents of the convention have constructed elaborate arguments to alleviate that concern.  Furthermore, a “runaway” convention doesn’t make sense to me because ratification requires three-fourths of the states to agree, and getting three-fourths of the state to agree on a dumb idea is not realistic.

I understand those who support the amendment because the federal government has shown an inability to balance its budget, and this new process would be akin to a CEO getting the Board of Directors to sign off on major decisions – i.e., increasing the nation’s debt ceiling.  But I am more concerned with creating a situation where government is even more dysfunctional than it is now.  The state of California is instructive of what happens when a government tries to establish too many checks & balances to enforce fiscal balances.  Our federal government may be dysfunctional, but it’s not as bad as California’s government.   

I am optimistic that the federal government is learning to be fiscally responsible, primarily because the voters are finally insisting on it.  Ultimately, the Constitution shouldn’t be expected to save us from ourselves. 

Incidentally, a recent op-ed piece in the NY Times by a leading jurist – J. Harvie Wilkinson III – warned that Americans are expecting too much from the Supreme Court – i.e., conservatives expect it to emasculate the federal government by shutting down an expansive program (ObamaCare), while liberals expect it to create unenumerated personal rights:

  • … creating constitutional rights without foundation frays the community fabric and, with it, the very notion that the majority can enact into law some expression of shared values that make ours a society whose whole is more than the sum of its parts. In pushing a constitutional vision of autonomous individuals divested of location in larger social settings, liberals risk weakening the communal values and institutions that best afford our most disadvantaged the chance for a good life.  At a time of dismay over democratic dysfunction, the temptation to ask courts to supplant self-governance runs high. And yet when I look past the present debacle, and think of where democracy has brought this country, I would not lose faith.

Well said, J. Harvie.  We could use a justice like you on the Supreme Court.


The National Debt Relief Amendment




Whereas, Article V of the Constitution of the United States provides authority for a Convention to be called by the Congress of the United States for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution upon application of two-thirds of the Legislatures of the several states (“amendments convention”), and,

Whereas, the Legislature of the State of ____________ favors the proposal and ratification of an amendment to said Constitution which shall provide that an increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.

Therefore, be it resolved:

Section 1. That, as provided for in Article V of the Constitution of the United States, the Legislature of the State of __________ herewith respectfully applies for an amendments convention to be called for the purpose of proposing an amendment which shall provide that an increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.

Section 2. That the amendments convention contemplated by this application shall be entirely focused upon and exclusively limited to the subject matter of proposing for ratification an amendment to the Constitution providing that an increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.

Section 3. This application constitutes a continuing application in accordance with Article V of the Constitution of the United States until at least two-thirds of the legislatures of the several states have made application for an equivalently limited amendments convention.

Section 4. Be it further resolved that a certified copy of this application be dispatched by the secretary of state (or other responsible constitutional officer), to the President of the United States Senate, to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to each member of the applicant’s delegation to the United States Congress, and to the presiding officers of each house of the several state legislatures, requesting their cooperation in applying for the amendments convention limited to the subject matter contemplated by this application.

March 14, 2012

Missionary work

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,Military,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 9:18 pm
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While riding my bike yesterday, I passed a couple of young, thin men who were dressed almost identically, and I surmised they were Mormon missionaries.  They brought to mind Mitt Romney and his missionary work in France before he enrolled in college.  I once heard Romney say that that work taught him to persevere because he rarely was able to convert people.  He might have even said he had zero converts.

Romney’s statement didn’t make sense – why would the Mormon Church conduct never-ending missions if they were essentially ineffective – so I decided to do some research.  First step – Wikipedia. 

According to Wikipedia:

  • Young men between the ages of 19 and 25 who meet standards of worthiness are strongly encouraged to consider a two-year, full-time proselytizing mission. This expectation is based in part on the New Testament passage “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” (Matt. 28: 19-20). In 2007, approximately 30% of all 19-year-old LDS men became Mormon missionaries; from LDS families that are active in the church, approximately 80-90% of 19-year-old men serve a mission.  As of 2007, 80% of all Mormon missionaries were young, unmarried men, 13% were young single women and 7% retired couples.
  • As of December 31, 2010, there were 52,225 LDS missionaries serving in 340 church missions throughout the world. Their work, often in cooperation with local members, resulted in 272,814 convert baptisms in 2010….  the number of convert baptisms per missionary per year has fallen from a high of 8.03 in 1989 to just 4.67 in 2005.

So, either Mitt Romney exaggerated his lack of proselytizing success in France or he was singularly unsuccessful.

Incidentally, Romney’s missionary service seems to have shielded him from criticism for his failure to serve in the U.S. military.  Of course, that is not much of a weakness anymore, since Ron Paul is the only candidate who has served.  Still, Romney seems to place military service in especially high regard, based on his willingness to endorse DREAM Act citizenship following military service, but not following a college education. 


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