Sunday, December 11, 2011

It's not about the money, but it's totally about the money

Interesting reporting on why Pujols took the offer from the Angels.

Summarizing, it seems that Pujols went with the Angels not because they offered more money, but because they demonstrated a greater commitment.  How did they demonstrate this commitment?  By offering a bigger contract.

At this point, it's tempting for a spurned Cardinal fan like myself to point to the absurdity of Pujols's position, and that of course he was just after getting as much money as he possibly could.  But I get what he means.

For one, I am oversimplifying a bit.  Pujols turned down an even bigger offer from the Miami Marlins that did not include no-trade protections.(i.e. "commitment"), so it seems that this was not just about money.

But what I think it is, to borrow from Perfectly Irrational, is that at some point during Pujols's career, his relationship turned from social-based to market-based.  By taking a clinical, analytical approach to its negotiations with Pujols, the Cardinals move their relationship with Pujols from the social zone to the market zone.

This was bad news for a couple reasons.  For one, once you're in the market zone, the rational thing to do is move if you get a better offer somewhere else.  If you're just working for a paycheck, does it matter if that paycheck comes from the Cardinals or the Angels?  The Cardinals were not in a position where they could win a bidding war, and in moving their relationship with their best player to the market zone, that's exactly what they set up.

The second reason is that most of us, in our hearts, want to have relationships that are in the social zone instead of the market zone.  The market zone is an exhausting place to be -- the assumption is each side is trying to screw over the other side, and we have to do what we can to protect ourselves (an maybe screw over the other side).  Most of us would rather be in a relationship, even business relationships, where we can trust the other person and not be on guard.

The Angels seem to have presented Pujols a convincing case that they were such a partner, and this is what Pujols wanted.

Now.  It may be that Pujols is kidding himself, and it will be interesting to see how this "commitment" holds up if Pujols gets hurt or his productivity drops.

I'm not sure if there was a point during the last two years where the Cardinals could have demonstrated this commitment with a lower offer than the one Pujols accepted.  I'm not sure it's even possible for a team's relationship with a superstar to stay out of the market zone.  And I'm not even positive that the Cardinals weren't prudent to do what they did.

But I do think what Pujols is discussing is real.  Contributing to Stack Overflow was fun, but became less so when they started charging people to be listed on their job board.   I've seen relationships with employers sour when it became apparent to me that the commitment they were asking for from me was not reciprocated.

It's a lesson that any company wishing to retain its star employees ought to absorb -- do everything you can to keep the relationship in the social zone and out of the market zone.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Pujols versus other departures..

To work through my grief of Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals for the Angels, I'll put on my analytical hat and compare his departure to when other teams lost their superstars.\

In a way, what's happening with Pujols is unprecedented -- a superstar is leaving a team that he just led to a championship, despite that team's apparent good faith effort to keep him.
Some comparisons:

Michael Jordan's retirements from the Bulls.
Michael Jordan took his baseball sabbatical after three straight championships.  The Bulls kept the rest of the nucleus including Coach Phil Jackson, and the team remained competitive.
Jordan came back and led the Bulls to three more championships, then retired.  This time, the whole band broke up, which was already in motion, and the bottom fell out.

Wayne Gretzky Traded to LA
After Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers won 4 Stanley Cups in 5 years, there was a sense that Wayne had gotten too big for Edmonton, and he was traded to the LA Kings, in a move that was at least somewhat mutually desired.  Since they had such a deep reserve of talent, the Oilers remained competitive, even winning another Cup, but were no longer a juggernaut,  and slowly declined in relevance.

Shaquille O'Neal Going to LA, then Miami
The Magic hadn't won a championship yet, and Shaq's departure closed their window.

The Lakers had won 3 championships with Shaq, but were coming off a Finals upset loss to the Pistons, and transitioning to the Kobe era.

Kareem going to LA
Noticing a trend here...

The Bucks had won a championship with Kareem, but that was four years before he left, and the team was in decline already.

Rogers Hornsby traded from Cardinals to Giants
Hornsby didn't get along with Branch Rickey; Frankie Frisch didn't get along with John McGraw; so they were traded for each other.

This may be the closest parallel, even discounting that it's the same team.  Good news for the Cardinals: Frisch led the Gashouse Gang to more championships.  Bad news for the Cardinals: they aren't getting anyone directly in exchange for Pujols.


Well, this hasn't been a terribly instructive exercise, at least in helping to figure out how the Cardinals will be without Pujols.

The Cardinals have been able to punch a bit above their small market weight.  The popular explanation is that the Cardinals are an institution in St. Louis, home to the best fans in baseball, etc.  But I wonder how much of that is a function of having in large part lucked into employing the services of the best player in baseball for the past decade.  It wasn't that long ago that Philadelphia was spoken of as a small baseball market, and teams like Toronto and Baltimore were powerhouses.

Is St. Louis intrinsically a great baseball town, or is it only when it has stars like Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols?  We may be about to find out.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The case against Pujols taking his talents to South Beach

As a St. Louis resident and Cardinal fan, I obviously have a vested interest in the results of Albert Pujols free agent negotiations.   Still,I think my analysis here I relatively free of bias.

Reports are that the Marlins have offered Pujols a 10 year contract, compared to the Cardinals' 8 year offer.

Here's how I see Pujols's situation around 2020 if he takes the deal:

  • His skills have degraded to the point where he's now a league average first baseman.
  • He will probably have had several years of solid performance, but probably not at the same heights as his career so far.
  • His salary remains among the highest in the league.
  • He may or may not have led the Marlins to 1 or more world titles.  Considering the Fish won the 1997 and 2003 titles, this wouldn't quite make him a local hero.
  • The team and interest in the team will likely decline along with Pujols's skills.  The Marlins have been through a few boom and bust cycles.  Yes, they're getting a new stadium, but Pirates and Nationals fans can tell you that's not a guarantee of long term success in the stands or on the field.
  • Pujols's contract will be identified as a major obstacle to the Marlins competing, and he will face pressure to rework his deal or accept a trade.
If he were to stay with the Cardinals, here's how things look:

  • The skill will not have changed.
  • He will have led the Cardinals to at least 2 world champions, perhaps more.
  • He will be saluted for having chosen to stay here.
  • He will in general be a local institution.
In short, nobody in 2020 is going to be regretting the Albert Pujols experience, even if he's struggling through an injury-plagued year with the team doing poorly.  This is not true in Miami.

Now, there may be other considerations.  And I know that I myself recently left a position where I had accumulated some goodwill for a position with more upside.  

But it seems that by taking this deal, Pujols would be setting himself up for a bad situation several years hence.  I know it's hard to look that far ahead, but it's worth considering.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Ok, maybe we do need a playoff system...

Few things excite me less than the annual whining about the BCS.
I was glad to see Houston go down today so we avoided another round of lamentations on the plight of mid-major conference schools in the BCS system. 

Sill as we march toward a championship rematch of the LSU-Alabama snoozefest / defensive classic that no one a day's drive from the Gulf Coast wants to see, it might be worth considering if there's a better way.

One thought is that the BCS is chained to the grim logic of the 1-2 match up.  It's difficult to argue that any team is superior to LSU and Alabama.  LSU played a hellacious schedule ans emerged with college football's sole undefeated record.  Alabama's only loss was in overtime to LSU.  (though it may be worth considering if we'd be in a better place if that game was allowed to end in a tie)   The BCS's whole reason for existence is to produce a 1 vs. 2 match up, and that's LSU-Bama.

This begs for the human element. Bama had its shot at LSU and didn't come through.  Why should they get a shot and not, say, Oklahoma St., whose sole loss was on the road in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy in their athletic department.   The situation begs for the human element, for someone to have the authority to say, "Yes, Alabama objectively seems to be the 2nd best team, but they missed their shot and didn't win their conference. So we're giving another team a shot.

What about the old bowl system?  That had the human element -- each bowl tried to put on an entertaining game.  Seems like that would get us something better.

Except that while the BCS must serve.its master of objectivity, the old bowl system had to serve its conference commitments.  LSU, as SEC champion, would play in the Sugar Bowl.  Big 12 champ Oklahoma St. would play in the Orange Bowl, perhaps against Alabama.  It's not clear who LSU's opponent would be.  Virginia Tech, fresh from being clobbered by Clemson? Stanford, who also couldn't win its conference? This doesn't seem to be an improvement.

Seems like we need a system free from the grim logic of the BCS and the commitments of the old bowl system. Maybe this is possible without a playoff, but I don't see it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Different ways to win

Ten years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. The elite talent on the team essentially boiled down to two great starting pitchers -- Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, as well as a slugging left fielder, Luis Gonzales, having a career year.  Schilling and Johnson won the World Series almost single-handedly, pitching almost all the innings in the last two games.

In the years since, the conventional wisdom was that having elite starting pitching as close as there was to a sure path to postseason success in baseball.  In a short series with off days, when you can have your top two or three pitchers throw a large share of the innings, having those inning thrown by two or three of the top ten pitchers in baseball is a great way to win.

Of course, you did need more.  You needed some offense.  You needed a closer.  Some situational relievers would be nice. But you start with the pitching.

Surely, this is what motivated the Phillies' roster construction.  With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Phils had three of NL's top 10 pitchers.  Throw in Roy Oswalt, who had been among those just recently, and Vance Worley, who appeared to be joining them, and it looked like they'd mow through the competition.

But it didn't work out that way.  The St. Louis Cardinals, with one starter who consistently delivered quality starts, won the World Series.

The Cardinals has their share of starts.  Carpenter was consistently solid and occasionally brilliant.  David Freese deservedly picked up a load of postseason awards.  Allen Craig broke through as a consistent run producer.  Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman continued to hit and strike fear into opposing pitchers.

But in my judgement, the star of the Cardinals postseason run was their deep bullpen.  They had seven or eight pitchers in the bullpen in each round who were capable of pitching in any situation.  And Tony LaRussa did.  Often, by the time teams reach the World Series, managers only have a few relief pitchers they have confidence in, and managers overuse them or push their starters to go further than they should.

Ironically, this was a strength for the Cardinals in part because it was such a weakness for them in the early parts of the regular season.  Because they were so ineffective, each reliever got a shot in the set-up and closer roles.  And even though none of them pitched well enough to seize those roles, they pitched well enough that La Russa would not hesitate to use them.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the cardinals had eight battle-tested relievers who were relatively fresh.  And then Lance Lynn came back from injury and was able to fill in for Kyle McClellan, who was worn out.

I'm not sure this success can be replicated.  It took the right circumstances and the right manager to make work.  But it's hard to deny it worked this year.

Still, I wouldn't bet against the Phillies riding their starters to next year's title.  There's more than one way to win.  That's what makes baseball, and sports, interesting.  The Miami Heat have two of the five best players.  That didn't win them the title last year; it may this year.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stardom vs. Leadership

Must stars also be leaders?  Does "star treatment" carry with it some responsibility?

These are what I think are the interesting questions in the aftermath of the Cardinals' 2-1 loss to the Rangers, with the winning run resulting from an error by Albert Pujols, and his failure to address the media afterwards, leaving his younger and lower paid teammates to answer for the Cardinals.

On the one hand, I'm not sure why we expect athletic talent (or particular talent in any field) to also correlate with leadership ability.  I never thought it was a moral failing that LeBron James defers to Dwyane Wade.  We don't fault less talented players for failing to be leaders.  Isn't it enough that Pujols puts up huge numbers, and helps put the Cardinals in the World Series, and leave the leadership stuff Tony La Russa, who was hired specifically for that purpose?

On the other hand, groups, particularly groups of men, will tend to follow the lead of the most talented and successful person among them, no matter what the org chart says.  When the most talented person and the person ordained the "leader" are two different people, that is not a stable situation.  It may sort-of work sometimes, as in the Jeter-ARod situation with the Yankees, but it often leads to confusion for the rest of the team.

Then there is the "star treatment," which I am certain Pujols has consumed his share of over the years.  Nobody ever points out that he doesn't run out ground balls.   He probably knew his manager and teammates would cover for him when he bolted last night.  The media needs access to him, so they back off.   And, though he may not be making as much money as he could in the open market, his salary is still several multiples of that of most of his teammates.

I do think that consuming such star treatment does carry with it some responsibility.  First, being accountable for the results, and not leaving that to others.  If you're allowed to do things your way, and your way doesn't work out, then you've got some explaining to do.

So, I don't fault Pujols for not being a leader, but I do fault him for not fulfilling the responsibilities that come with star treatment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy the 1990's New Jersey Devils...

In the mid-1990's the New Jersey Devils adapted a defensive technique known as the "neutral zone trap."   I'm sure I'm oversimplifying it, but it boiled down to clogging the middle of the ice so that the opposing team could not move up the ice with any kind of speed.  This was possible in part, because the offsides rules limited the amount of ice they had to cover at any given time.

Despite not having any elite offensive players, the Devils were able to leverage this technique to become essentially the default Stanley Cup champions for about a decade, frustrating more star-laden teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings.   And the fans hated it, because it was boring, and star players spent the games frustrated.

Coming up with the neutral zone trap required ingenuity on the part of the Devils' coaching staff.  And executing it required hard work and discipline on the part of the players --  no other team was able to replicate the Devils' success with the trap.  It was perfectly within the rules of hockey, and not at all malevolent -- the Devils didn't set out to injure opposing teams' star players; they just limited their effectiveness.

Nevertheless, the NHL's failure to make the trap a less effective technique is a big reason why the league declined in popularity in the late 90's, and the rule changes it made to confront it are a big reason it's back.

The Devils found a way to increase their own success to the detriment (or at least not to the benefit) of the league.  It exploited certain peculiarities of the rules.  It was the responsibility of the league to act to make this less rewarding.  

The same is true of other sports.  If a less talented basketball team really could consistently negate a talent disparity by deploying a well-executed full-court press, then the powers of basketball would need to act to make it a less effective technique.  If "Moneyball" meant that the A's could be successful by fielding a team of a bunch of fat guys who drew lots of walks and hit home runs, baseball would need to act.  If things like "icing the kicker" really worked, the NFLwould need to act to prevent it.  It's the responsibility of the grown-ups in charge to ensure that the team's incentives are aligned with the interests of the league as a whole.

But what if the Devils also controlled the commissioner's office and the competition committee?  Do you think they'd act against their own interest?  Probably not.  In fact, given such a situation, I'd expect rule changes that made the trap even more effective.  Resulting in more trapping.  And the league's popularity would spiral downwards.

I think this is one way to think about what has happened to the "top 1%" over the past several years.  Some people have figured out ways to reliably make money in ways that do not have an apparent benefit to society, or that are actively harmful.  These ways may be quite ingenious.  They may require hefty amounts of discipline and hard work.  That doesn't mean they're benefiting society, or that people have an absolute right to continue to use these same techniques to enrich themselves indefinitely.

Trying to re-balance these incentives needs not be a moral condemnation of those who have enriched themselves, any more than rejiggering the NHL's offsides rules is a moral condemnation of the New Jersey Devils.  Nor is it destroying a delicately perfect machine.  We're not getting just results now; it's time to take a look at the incentives that are in place.  It would mean the Devils would have to figure out another way to win.

This is what healthy systems do.  They correct themselves -- not magically or invisibly, but the grown-ups take a look at the situation, and change things that need to be changed.

Where are these grown-ups today?

And, sorry Mr. President, but I don't consider asking all of those who are rich to pay more taxes to be the fundamental change we need.  It may or may not be the right thing to do.  But the problem isn't so much that people are allowed to great a share of the spoils of victory.  It's that these techniques lead to victory in the first place.

Monday, July 04, 2011

My New Stand-Up Career...

A little over a month ago, after reading a few articles about the health effects of prolonged sitting, I decided to join the ranks of Donald Rumsfeld and Matthew Yglesisas and try out a stand-up workspace.

The Set-Up

My office has an open floor plan.  The workspace is partitioned by walls that are about three feet tall, and have three pieces of furniture -- a desk that is flat on one side and curved on the other, that takes up the far side of the workspace as you approach it, a file cabinet/bookshelf that goes on one side, and an oval table that people can put where they wish, some opting for one side of the workspace that does not contain the bookshelf, others behind them to mark off their space.

It so happened that the bookshelf, at about four feet high, was at just about the recommended just under the elbows height for a stand-up set-up for my 6'5" frame.    So I rotated the desk to one side of the workspace, slid the bookshelf over to the center of the far end , and put the oval table on the other side.  So I stand with a table on each side, with the bookshelf in the middle.  I moved my keyboard, mouse, and monitor (which I had to prop up a bit to get to eye height) to the top of the bookshelf, and prop my laptop on the desk to my left so I can use both monitors.

I keep an extra mouse on the desk, so I can transition to a sitting position for a break with just the laptop, which I typically do for an hour or so each afternoon.  The key is that that workstation is set up for a default of standing rather than sitting.

There were some other considerations of where things plugged in, but those are probably not generally useful.

The Experience

The first couple days were not easy.  At my job I can get by wearing shoes that are essentially brown tennis shoes, and I would not recommend trying this without comfortable shoes.  Even with comfortable shoes, my feet continue to hurt a bit a month into the new set-up.  My legs were hurting a bit, but I have gained strength and that is no longer a bit.

If you do something like this, you will get a lot of comments.  Most people have been generally curious and supportive.  But I am now "the guy who stands up at his desk."  When you're 6'5", and you're standing up in an open workspace, you're going to get noticed.

The bookshelf is at a good height, but the top of it really isn't big enough to accommodate a monitor, keyboard, and mouse/mousepad comfortably.  A trackball might work better.  And I don't have the laptop propped up enough that the screen is really effective as a second monitor.

The Results

I think the biggest thing is that I feel more active and literally "agile" at work.  I'm more inclined to walk over and talk to somebody if I have a question, since doing so doesn't entail pulling myself out of my chair.  I can move around a bit while I'm waiting for a build to finish, etc.

I don't watch my weight closely enough to have a definite answer, but I'm fairly confident I have lost some weight in the month I've been doing this.   I also am quite certain I have improved my posture.  This has also coincided with me being more faithful to my workout routine, so I'm not sure I can isolate the effect of the stand-up desk.

But then that's part of the point.  In the spirit of trying something for 30 days, I now see myself as the type of person who stands up at his job, rather than someone who spends eight hours a day slumped at his desk, and that spills over into other parts of my life, leading me to welcome the next challenge.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Turning Baseball Into Roullette

Albert Pujols currently leads the league in grounding into double plays.  There are a number of factors playing into this:
  • The Cardinals have gotten a large number of runners on base ahead of him, giving him more opportunities.
  • Pujols generally hits the ball hard, and hard-hit balls often end up as double plays.
  • Pujols is right-handed and pulls the ball a lot, and ground balls to the left side of the infield result in double plays more often than ground balls to the right side.
  • Pujols has been hitting more ground balls than fly balls generally.

Another factor, one that likely plays a bigger part in my mind than in reality, is that Albert Pujols does not run out ground balls.  He is a tremendous athlete, as evidenced by his defensive performance at first base, and his work at third base on occasion this year.  He can be a daring and fast base runner.  But it seems that any ground ball he hits with a runner on first results in a double play, with the play at second being closer than the play at first.

As a Cardinals fan, as defined as someone with an interest in the Cardinals being successful, this makes sense.  Albert Pujols, even in this “off year”, is a tremendously valuable player, and losing him for any length of time would have a large negative impact on the Cardinals’ chances of winning a division title this year.  It makes no sense for him to risk injury by busting down the line to try to save one out in a game in the spring time.  

At the same time, as a baseball fan, it stinks.  I want to see the best players in the world competing at the highest level to win.  I don’t want to see players half-assing it to preserve themselves for some future game I’m not watching right now.  The essence of sport is competition, and jogging down the line after hitting a ground ball is the opposite of competition.  I used to tell myself that this impacts the culture of the team and results in other players whose present/future value ration is not so low, not exerting full effort, but I’m not so sure about that anymore.

Yes, it’s true that at a strategic level, teams don’t go all out to win every game.  Pitchers are saved for future games, regular players are given days off, and these things lower a team’s chance of winning today’s game for a better chance in some future game(s).  This is an accepted part of the game.  And I don’t mean plays that look like hustle but are ultimately ineffective, like Skip Schumaker’s unfortunate habit of diving into first base on close plays.  Still, on a micro level, you want to believe that each player is executing each individual play with an interest in winning that particular game.  When it’s not, it’s something else.

So this is where I am entering into the debate about Buster Posey’s injury, whether a runner barreling into the catcher is a dirty play, and whether it makes sense for a catcher to try to block the plate and set himself up to get clobbered.

On my rational side, I completely get that home plate collisions are not an essential part of the game, and it makes no sense for a player as valuable as Posey to put his career in jeopardy to save one run in May, even the go-ahead run in a one run game.

But on the other hand, I hate it.  It may be true that home plate collisions are not a central part of the game, but they are one of the few plays in baseball that is about physical courage and hustle rather than simply random chance.  If that throw arrived a half-second earlier, and Posey was able to collect the ball, apply the tag, and get himself in a better position to avoid injury, he would have been a hero.  If the Giants subsequently went on a winning streak, people would have looked back at that play, when their best player put his body on the line to win a game, as sparking them.

Maybe it would all be BS.  But I’d rather be a baseball fan in that world than in this world:

Bringing me to my beef with ongoing beef with sabermetrics.

To begin with, they have been mostly right about most things, with few exceptions.  On base percentage is more valuable than batting average.  Most standard statistics are not as valuable, in particular when you fail to adjust for things like park factors and teammates.  “Clutch” hitters probably don’t exist, and if they do, they’re not who people think they are.  Given a choice between a surly slugger who draws a lot of walks and seems to play with indifference, and a guy who never walks and always has a dirty uniform and signs a lot of autographs, you probably want the surly slugger on your team if you want to win.  And yes, it doesn’t make sense for a catcher to put himself in the path of a runner coming in at full speed to save one run.

But still, they’re kind of the “well, actually...” guy at the party.  It’s fun to root for players who seem to hustle.  It’s fun to talk about which players can handle pressure and which ones can’t.    Jerry Seinfeld once said that with all the player movement, rooting for a professional sports team is like rooting for laundry.  It seems that in the sabermetric world, it’s more like rooting for a number on a roulette wheel.  Which is something only an insane person would do.

So are we in a better place, now?  By the measure of truth, it seems that we are.  By the measure of it being enjoyable to be a fan, I don’t think so.   Something has been lost.  And if as we learn more and more about what really matter about the game, we take more and more “hustle” plays out of the game, we make it less appealing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Defend Life By Treating People As Instruments...

In Crisis Magazine, Prof. John Zmirak posted an article entitled "Amnesty Equals Abortion."

The argument is as follows:

  • Hispanics tend to vote Democratic.
  • Democrats tend to be pro-choice.
  • Amnesty would result in a large influx of Hispanic voters.

Therefore, anyone in favor of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants is pro-abortion.

Lest you think I am exaggerating the strength of the claim Prof. Zmirak is making, he makes it explicit:

I do not wish to imply that those who know how amnestied illegals are almost certain to vote and whostill favor amnesty are not, in cold fact, pro-life. I would never leave such a statement to mere implication. I wish to say it outright: Those who favor amnesty for illegal immigrants are not, in cold fact, pro-life. That goes for politicians and voters, bishops and priests, men, women, and children, red and yellow, black and white.

Henry Karlson has excerpted some of my response at the Vox Nova Blog, so I figured I may as well flesh it out more over here.

I do not have a definite position on immigration reform or "amnesty."  I recognize that the influx of immigrants has caused a hardship for some.  I think the reaction to the Arizona law earlier this year was overblown.  I also think that "illegal" is an overly reductionist term for people who are coming from situations from great hardship and have made great sacrifices to build a better life for themselves.   I lean toward the "amnesty" side of the debate, but I can imagine myself being convinced otherwise.

With those cards on the table, I will now write that I find the argument Prof. Zmirak makes here to be contrary to a Culture of Life.

What Prof. Zmirak is inviting us to do is consider the potential beneficiary of "amnesty" not as human person whom we must carefully consider how to treat, but as a voting tendency that may or may not help our cause.  All that matters is whether they will help us or hurt us.  If giving them some benefit suits my other needs, then we'll do it.  If not, then don't.  We don't need to consider what is just.

So, because these immigrants are Hispanic, and Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, and the Democratic Party supports abortion, then the immigrants don't get citizenship with voting rights.  Sorry, thanks for playing.  Try to be part of a more Republican-leaning demographic next time.

Of course, this is the logic of abortion.  The important thing is whether the baby fits into my plan for my life.  Whether it is a human person with its own dignity or rights is a question we'd rather not consider.  If the baby fits into my plan, it can live; if not, it can die.  The baby's worth is dependent on how it serves my needs.

The Culture of Life is not going to be built by selectively including people from groups who agree with us.  It is going to be built by treating everyone we encounter as human person with dignity and respect.

And  I would be making this same argument if Hispanic voting patterns were reversed, and someone was making the argument that support for "amnesty" is pro-life because it would result in the election of more pro-life candidates, or more vocations, or more money in Church coffers, etc.


I also dispute the empirical claim.  I suspect that a massive immigration amnesty would provide a short-term bounce to Democratic voters.  However, Hispanics also tend to be socially conservative and pro-life, so it is also possible that an influx of Hispanics could result in a more pro-life Democratic Party.

More generally, I trust the movement of the Holy Spirit more than I trust that current voting statistics and positions will remain constant.

In other words, I trust that if we do what’s right in other dimensions, then God will work with us in bringing the culture around on abortion.

UPDATE:  Arguments for liberalized immigration along the lines that we should import Christians to stave of the threat of Islam are no less odious.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Leave it to the Pros

I live in Maryland Heights, Missouri, which, if you've been watching the news you know was in the path of a tornado Friday night.  Our neighborhood is fine, but other nearby neighborhoods, such as the one surrounding my daughters' public elementary school, have seen tremendous devastation.  The American Red Cross set up a temporary shelter within walking distance of our house.

Naturally, we (or more specifically, my wife), wanted to see what we can do to help.  My wife even better bought some cases of water.  She went the Red Cross site to see what help they needed, and they just took her name and number down, and didn't even want the water.  The answer to "what can we do to help" seems to be to donate money to the American Red Cross.

I certainly understand the reasons for this.  If the Red Cross has sufficient trained professionals to do whatever work needs to be done, it's certainly better that the do the work than inexperienced  do-gooders like us.  They've dealt with situations like this before; we haven't.  Opening up those areas would probably draw at least as many gawkers as helpers.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why there weren't any fatalities or major injuries as a result of the storm.

Still, I have the feeling that we've lost something of the community coming together to address a problem.  And this applies to other domains besides disaster relief, such as education.  Our schools aren't run by the communities in which they're situated; they're run by professionals who may or not be otherwise engaged in the community.  If the school is failing, we don't come together as a community yo improve the schools; we get mad at the professionals we've hired to run the schools, and maybe even fire them and bring in a new set of professionals.

There is something deeply unsatisfying about addressing problems by sending money to a far away organization or set of professionals.  And I can't help but thing it's part of the reason why so many are somewhat disengaged from public life.

Obviously, the primary goal of things like disaster relief is effectiveness rather than ensuring that those wanting to help have a satisfying experience doing so.  But I wonder if we've gone a bit too far professionalizing some things that we should all be involved in.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good Inequality; Bad Inequality

Mickey Kaus, who wrote a book about how income inequality doesn't matter so much as long as it doesn't lead to social inequality, puts together a list of what Scott Walker should do, that starts with the following:

1) Pointing out the growing disparity between cushy union contracts and the working situation of average American taxpayers. Horror stories are useful here;
The "growing disparity" isn't because things have been getting increasingly cushier for government employees; it's because things have been getting poorer and poorer for workers in the private sector, with Wall Street and C-level executives pocketing the savings.  So I'm not convinced that the proper response to this situation is to drag public employees down to the level of private sector employees.

Besides, years of debate about income inequality has taught me that the proper response to growing disparities is not to resent and punish the parties who are benefitting, but to tip our cap to them for their success.  This is their just reward for the work they do in keeping the economy humming, and the incentive they need to ensure they keep working so hard for us.  When we find out that GE paid no corporate income taxes on their $14.2 billion of profit, we shouldn't be angry, but admiring of their skill.

So to summarize:  We shouldn't resent CEO's of established companies who make factor-of-10 multiples of what their predecessors did, and shouldn't resent hedge fund managers who make fortunes doing work whose benefit to society is not terribly apparent.  But we should resent our kids' public school teachers if they have a lower co-pay when they go to the doctor than we do.

Look -- I get that there is a difference between 2012 public employee unions and the type of unions that began the labor movement.  And I understand the possibility of corruption and self-dealing when the union is negotiating with government officials it helped get elected.  And I certainly understand how union work rules and inflexibility can be a barrier to progress.

But they also seem to be one of the only forces pushing against the deterioration of the middle class.  And for every "horror story" about government unions, I'm quite sure I can come up with examples of people in entertainment, sports, and business who are being richly compensated for work of dubious benefit.  But we seem to think that's OK.

If exorbitant salaries, golden parachutes, etc, are the price we pay for excellence, then I don't think benefits that are marginally more generous than what's offered by the private sector is too high a price to pay for solid services and support for the middle class.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are we all Wisconsinites now?

When I first head about the conflict between the Wisconsin GOP and the public employees' unions, I wan't terribly sympathetic to the unions.  After all, employees of private companies like me had our benefits whittled away over the past few years, why should government employees be any different?  I've read The Great Stagnation; don't these people realize that the gravy train has stopped, and we're all going to have to make do with less?  Generous pensions and job security for teachers was great when we were all swimming in money, but things are different now.  We just can't afford it.

Thinking about it (and reading about it) some more, the truth occurred to me.  People like me and the public unions are fighting over scraps, and demonizing each other in the process.  Meanwhile, the real villains are laughing their heads off, secure in their money.  We're busy fighting over who get to have a 3% raise, while they're raking money in.  And no, I don't believe it's because they're creating such great value for society.  (Gives her more incentive to become a lawyer?  Stunning ignorance of the real and social capital required to become a lawyer.  And who says we need more lawyers?)  It may be because they've made a large number of very safe bets that are backed by the rest of us.

Because I look around.  I still see luxury cars on the road.  I still see people living in huge houses. I still see folks sitting in the front rows of games and concerts.  So I'm not positive that we're in such dire straits that it's necessary that we stop providing a decent retirement for public schoolteachers.

What we've done is accepted things going on.  We've let Wall Street squeeze how we are treated as workers, so we've figured that's how workers ought to be treated.  I don't have a pension; why should they?  I live in fear of getting fired; they should, too!  I have to fork over a big chunk of my paycheck for health insurance for my family; they ought to as well!  Screw them!

But is this really what we want?  Do we want a world where workers keep seeing their benefits eroded?  And for whom?  Who benefits?  Do we really believe that if the Wisconsin GOP is successful, that the result will be better services for the poor?  I'm skeptical.

This is the last stand in figuring out what kind of society we want to be.  Do we want income inequality to continue unabated?  Do we want the middle class to vanish?   Do we want more and more resources to be funneled toward those who are already rich?

Or is there another way?  That maybe "shared sacrifice" ought to include those who've been making out like bandits over the past dozen years while the rest of us have been treading water at best.

During the Tea Party rallies, I lamented that what gets people out on the streets protesting is the possibility of us paying for others' health care.  And now, I lament that what gets people upset is a marginal erosion in the benefits for workers who will remain solidly in the middle class.  Seems like there's some other injustices that ought to be higher on the list.

It just feels like we're fighting over a shrinking size of the pie, when we should be focussed on where the rest of the pie went.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Not quite hypocrisy

In a column Thursday about why he prefers the NFL Hall of Fame voting to MLB, Bernie Miklasz writes:

Football voters aren't engaging in Cooperstown-style hypocrisy by imposing tough moral standards on some players — alleged steroids users — after we'd relaxed these supposedly rigid ethics principles to admit amphetamine poppers, racists, potheads and baseball-doctoring cheaters.

First, let me say that I am with Miklasz on the NFL Hall of Fame being better, and the overall experience of being an NFL fan being superior as well, in part because (the current labor troubles and concussion controversies being notable exceptions) it seems like it's possible to just enjoy the games.  I can talk about great coaches and grit and heart without being attacked by statheads.

I'm also of the opinion that Mark McGwire and other players currently being kept out of the Hall of Fame due to being tainted by steroids should ultimately get in

But I also think that the BBWA's failure to elect them can be explained by more than hypocrisy.

I'll concentrate on McGwire, since he is probably the most direct case, and I'm most familiar with his career, but the same could apply to others.  I'm not meaning to single him out.

The problem I would have with electing McGwire is that there is a direct link between his success and what steroids can do for you and his success.  What McGwire brings to the table is that he hit a lot of home runs, and they were huge.  Celebrating that, when we suspected and now we know that they were aided by steroids, seems like we are celebrating the use of steroids, and it's understandable that some people may not want to do that.  This is different from honoring Ty Cobb, even though he was a racist.  Nobody thinks Ty Cobb was a great baseball player because he was a racist (though his fiery personality likely fueled both pursuits).   Honoring Ty Cobb is not honoring racism.

Amphetamines are a closer call, but still not the same.  I may not like it if, say, Mickey Mantle popped greenies, but does anybody think that they were a significant factor in the Mick's success?  I'm not sure Mark McGwire would have broken home run records without steroids, but I'm pretty sure Mickey Mantle would have been a great baseball player without amphetamines.

As for "baseball-doctoring cheaters," I would say there are different types of cheating.  Micheal Jordan often got away with extra steps.  On his final championship-winning shot, he pushed off Byron Russell, and it wasn't called.  Is he therefore a "cheater?"  If we punish someone who, say, poisons his opponents the night before a game, must we also punish Jordan in order to escape the charge of hypocrisy?  

There are different kind of rules -- rules that govern the competition and rules that are there for player safety.  I don't think the NFL would honor an offensive lineman who cheated by gouging his opponents eyes, but they might honor one who knew how to get away with holding.  I submit that Gaylord Perry's use of the spitball is closer to the former than the latter.  And McGwire's use of steroids is closer to the latter than the former.  

In making that judgement, I open myself to the accusation of playing "moral police," but I think it's important that we do think through judgements like that rather than commit ourselves to a foolish consistency.

What the BBWA have effectively done is kick the can down the street.  They know that once these players are enshrined, they can't really take them out, but if they pass on them, they can always enshrine them later.  This may not be the most courageous stance, but it is understandable.  They want to figure out exactly what accomplishments like McGwire's mean in the context in which they were compiled.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A deal I'll take

Last week Andrew Sullivan posted the following excerpt from a Stephen Budiansky post:

4. For as long as I can remember, I have heard conservatives blaming everything that is wrong in the universe, from violent crime to declining test scores to teen pregnancy to rude children to declining patriotism to probably athlete's foot  . . . upon Dr. Spock, Hollywood liberals, the abolition of prayer in school, Bill Clinton, the "liberal 1960s," the teaching of evolution — in other words, upon symbols, rhetoric, cultural norms, and the values expressed by political and media leaders. Yet from the moment when someone gets a gun in their hands, apparently, society ceases to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome and individual responsibility takes hold 100%. Something is driving the tripling of death threats against congressmen (and the concomitant rise in threats against Federal judges and other villains of the right, from Forest Service rangers to climate scientists) and it isn't the sunspot cycle.

Ah yes.  It's a pity we live in a culture that is so timid about its actions for fears of how they might be eroding cultural norms and impacting others' behavior.  How many couples remain miserably married because they don't want to add to the legitimacy of divorce?  Dr. Spock was certainly shut down and put in his corner, wasn't he?  And we all know how successful conservatives have been at cleaning the and violence out of Hollywood.  I sometimes have to wait until 8 PM before I see someone called a nasty name or openly discuss their sexual conquests on network TV.

Minus the sarcasm -- my point is this is a battle that has largely been lost. The idea that adults should be mindful of the behaviors they normalize for fear of how it may impact the behavior of others is one that's likely to get you laughed out of the rooms where these decisions are made.  Conservatives have been lectured for years about how abstinence-based education doesn't work, you can't stop kids from having sex, homosexuality is an immutable inborn trait, that criminalizing abortion would have little or no impact on the number of abortions, and in general that adults have little or no hope of influencing the behavior of young people..  And those arguments have won the day! 

Citing these arguments as the precedent for inconsistency "gotcha" argument raises the question of why the converse does not apply to those who have taken the opposite positions. (It also assumes that "conservative" is a monolithic term such that the set of conservative supporting cultural norms is equivalent to those denying a connection between harsh rhetoric and violence).  After hearing over and over again how unreasonable it is to expect adults to curb their behavior based on cultural influences, we're supposed to believe that someone would shoot six people because Sarah Palin used gunsights on a map to illustrate that there were targeted districts?

But I'll call your bluff.  I'm not sure I speak for conservatives, since I'm not a particular fan of extreme rhetoric myself.  But I will gladly acknowledge that there is a connection between extreme rhetoric and violence if we can also agree on the following:

  • When leaders regard their marital vows as suggestions, it leads others to do the same, and this can lead to devastating consequences for children.
  • That abortion has been considered a Constitutional right and "perfectly legal" probably is a major driver of the cultural acceptance of abortion and the abortion rate.
  • When almost every movie and TV show displays premarital sex as normal, and indeed refraining from it before things like high school graduation as abnormal, then this will have an impact on teenager's behavior.
I'm willing to do my part to build a culture that doesn't encourage violence, if you'll help me build a culture that doesn't undermine the values I'm trying to instill in my children.  

Acknowledging these things may make it more difficult to deploy arguments like "How does it hurt your marriage if two gay people get married," since it does concede that we are interconnected that our actions have an impact on each other.  But I think it's closer to the truth than the lie we've been telling ourselves the last few years so we can pursue our own interests and get a good zinger in against our political opponents

Monday, January 10, 2011

Rhetoric and Complicity

The reaction to the shooting of Rep. Gifford and others on Saturday reminded me of a discussion I was involved in at Mirror of Justice after Russell Powell wrote that "we" (meaning Catholics) are complicit in the rash of suicides by gay teenagers last fall.

Like Saturday, there was no direct link between any action by the Catholic Church or Catholics in particular and the suicides.  So, Prof. Powell relied on the fact that "we do not actively provide moral leadership as individuals and as an institution to protect human life and dignity."  Of course, the same could be said for every injustice in the world -- warfare, abortion, capital punishment, poverty, euthanasia, etc.  But it did seem to me that Prof. Powell was claiming a more particular level of complicity in these suicides that, for example, abortion.  This is similar to how, failing to draw a line from harsh conservative rhetoric to the shooting, commentators instead pointed to a "climate of hate" and other similar terms.

I found myself resisting Prof. Powell's conclusion, as I found myself resisting the conclusion that conservatives who use harsh rhetoric bear responsibility for Saturday's shooting.  And I also resist the weaker claim that, even if there is no direct complicity, then these events provide a "teachable moment" for people to reconsider their actions.

Is it because I think both the institutional Church and Catholics are blameless in how they respond to gays and lesbians?  Certainly not.  Is it because I am happy with the current state of political discourse and would not welcome a move toward arguments over name calling?  Again, most certainly not.

It is because I recognize what a powerful force people's feelings are in the wake of events like murders and suicides.  And I am loathe to see the energy behind them unleashed on in directions that are only tangentially related to the actual event.

If we want to look for an example of why to be wary of this impulse, we should only look at the last ten years of our history since 9/11.  We responded to that by launching two separate wars, bringing back torture, setting aside many of our principles, and countless other things.  I would think that those on the political left would recognize the danger of being indiscriminate in directing people's grief toward undeserving targets (if you'll excuse the expression).

We can talk about how the Church might respond to gays and lesbians.  And we can talk about how we might bring about a more tame discourse.  But it's not right to do so with the charge of complicity with homicide in the air.  And I don't think doing so is going to lead to anything good.  Don't borrow moral force from the tragedies -- make the case on its own terms.

I am extremely skeptical that a better discourse is going to be built on evidence free accusations on complicity with murder.

Some other scattered thoughts I'm not inclined to pollute my Twitter feed with:
  • It is an interesting statement about the psyche of the Democrats that one of their first reactions to an attempted assassination of one of their Representatives is to attempt to link it to the failed VP candidate of the last election who currently holds no political office.  Has there ever been a politician so successful at getting in the other side's head?
  • I would say the left's demonization of the right is more common, but less severe, than the right's demonization of the left.  The left tends to make charges against the right that suggest they are not fit for inclusion in polite company, whereas right tends to imply some on the left ought to be arrested/killed.  Which is why I found Byron York's comparison to the reaction to the Ft. Hood shooting less than persuasive.  Is there a danger that there will be vigilante justice against conservatives?  I don't think so.
  • The more we learn about these shooters, the less likely I find the possibility that there exists a person who would have never harmed anybody but for things like Sarah Palin's map of targetted districts.  
  • And even if so, I find the idea of letting our speech be dictated by what some crazy person might react to extremely distasteful.
  • If liberals are still having trouble understanding why conservatives react so strongly to these charges, imagine how you might react to a pro-lifer like me posting that the shooting is yet another example of the "culture of death" enabled by our pro-choice culture that says that human life is expendable if it is inconvenient.  IMO, that's a more direct connection than anything Sarah Palin said, but I and the pro-life movement recognize that it would be imprudent to make such a case.