Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Romanticism and statistics

A grad school friend of mine has gradually become a bit of a big deal in the world of sabermetrics. While that sounds like a category of lifesaving surgical techniques, it's not, although surely more top brain-hours are devoted to sabermetrics than are devoted to the development of lifesaving surgical techniques.

Sabermetrics, named for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), is the the study of baseball through detailed empirical data. I was thinking about sabermetrics when I read Joe Posnanski, a proponent of 'advanced baseball stats' himself, on the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Among the things that make visiting the museum such a moving experience, I infer from his account, is the room for imagination that exists because of the absense of 'record'.
Through the years, I ... listened to stories from Buck O'Neil and Double Duty Radcliffe and Connie Johnson and the great Monte Irvin, who on his best days, before the war and before integration, might have been the best who ever lived.
     We'll never know that about Irvin, of course, and this is the main thing I used to think about when I and looked through the wire at the statues on the field. We'll never know. We'll never know how good Oscar Charleston was ... and we'll never know how hard Smokey Joe Williams really threw ... and we'll never know how many home runs Turkey Stearnes hit ... and we'll never know what the Devil, Willie Wells, looked like fielding a ground ball ... and we'll never know just how fast Cool Papa Bell ran ...
... and we'll never know anything more than we can imagine.
     That's why I loved the museum so much. When people asked Buck how fast Cool Papa Bell was, he would say: "Faster than that." In other words, Josh Gibson's home runs traveled exactly as far as your imagination allows. And the museum was a place for imagination. It did not have a lot of memorabilia -- too expensive and rare -- and it did not have a lot of interactive exhibits. It was more of a spiritual experience.
Those who know me know I have a bit of a romantic side. I like thinking that things were charming and simple in the past. I'm even known to defend the imperial system against the metric system.*

*For all its 'ease of conversion', the metric system is an imposition of a lab mentality on areas of life where it is inappropriate - areas of life where measurements should have real world referents like cups or feet. I don't need 'ease of conversion' when I'm baking muffins! It's a colonization of the lifeworld by the systemworld, to get all Jurgen Habermas-y.

I love sports stats. As a kid I used to grab the sports section and examine the stats page with an intensity that worried my parents. Even now I rarely watch baseball, but still spend a good deal of time at, looking at strange stats most people don't even know are kept or calculated. I still only understand a small fraction of them.   

I suppose stats and records can serve the creation of myths, but even then they can remove their magic. Mythmaking adds to the enjoyment of things past as past, and good recordkeeping can cut the legs out from under local legends, or even support them too coldly.  If all fishcatches were logged, we wouldn't be able to tell that story about the doozy of a fish we caught that day we didn't have the camera. And that one that we almost caught but didn't, it must have wieghted ___. If all homeruns are logged and searchable, it's hard to tell tales of that one I saw that afternoon when I was young: man, it must have been at least ___ feet (down with the metric system!).  “[W]e'll never know how many home runs Turkey Stearnes hit", Posnanski writes. Well, everyone knows how many home runs Albert Pujols hit. We also know that they don't make nicknames like they used to.

I think that'd it'd be great to compose a symphony, after a single performance of which all scores are destroyed and of which no recordings are permitted. Oh, and it'd have to be great, which may be difficult for me, as I don't compose symphonies, let alone great ones. It'd become legendary. People would try to recreate it. People would talk about its sublime this and its soaring that.  A lot of my friends are musicians, and I often hear about jam sessions in living rooms or long-closed bars, where a sort of magic was created that will never be created again. It's a tragedy that there aren't tapes. But it's also an amazing blessing.

Complaining about bureaucratic modernity gets old quickly, but that's not going to stop me! Good record keeping is bad for hagiography, and the absense of hagiography is bad for people. Oh, and that TV show Mythbusters is run by killjoys. 

Jesus, Plato and Confucious all left no records. They're known from the accounts of witnesses. Great leaders certainly aren't hurt by some ambigiuity about authorship (and a few unscrutinable passages). Great athletes need to be able to he remembered as giants. A good cache of stats and records is good fun. A good fish story might be even better.

This has been a statement of ambivalence. It is more a declaration of fogeyness than a denunciation of recordkeeping or statistical analysis.  I'll end this with the same F. Scott Fitzgerald statement of fogeyness that Matt Labash uses to close his fogey essay/rant about Facebook in Fly Fishing with Darth Vader: "It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory." 

I'm not sure that's quite what I'm saying here, but it sure reads pretty.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Conrad Black and the visceral trump card

When it comes to moral systems, hypocrisy, inconsistency and exceptions are different things. Hypocisy, as  La Rochefoucauld put it, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Hypocrisy reflects an inability or unwillingness to live up to one's own standard or a standard one inauthentically espouses. Sometimes I think hypocrisy gets a bad rap. Implicit in hypocrisy is an acknowledgement of the worthwhileness of that standard. I think we're better off if our cads are Dr Johnsons rather than Hugh Hefners.

But let's talk about the related phenomena: inconsistency and exception. Exceptions are an acknowlegement that a system can't apply to all cases. Inconsistencies, I suppose, are exceptions you can't or don't justify.

The tightest systems allow for no exceptions: I love the fact that exceptions aren't needed for the Roman Catholic divorce prohibition. If what appears to be a Catholic marriage breaks down, it was never truly a Catholic marriage, therefore no Catholic marriage has ever broken down. Many ideologies have the same escape valve.

However, most systems need exceptions, and they need the right kind.  In the public square, an allowable elision or aberration has to be articulated in a way that doesn't undermine the principles behind the rule/system itself. Understandably, a lot of effort goes into this process. Just look at the hundreds of years of writing on Just War Theory. Among one's ideological fellow travellers, however, quite often all one needs for a socially acceptable exception is a shared visceral reaction. 

This brings us to Conrad Black, the recently incarcerated historian, commentator and businessman I recently favourably quoted on this blog.  A lot of political progressives downplay the punitive, retributive and deterrent sides of criminal justice. Criminal sanction is, apparently, for a) rehabilitation/restoration, b) public safety, and c) punishing Conrad Black.

There are reasons for the antipathy towards Black. He is, or at least was, rich. He's vocally conservative. He carries himself in a way that some see as snobbish, the effect of which is exacerbated by his conspicuous propensity to marshall the veritable cornucopia of ostentatious words he has at his disposal. He can come across as a bit patronizing.

In 2006, Black was changed with just about every white collar crime imaginable. Over time, all the charges save one were either dropped, resulted in a 'not guilty' verdict, or were overturned on appeal. He's served 28 months and has lost much of his wealth and esteem. Yet, mention his name in some circles and you'll hear rants about how he should spend the rest of his life in jail, and not the comfortable kind of jail either. This is how exceptions work. When theorizing, they're hard to rationalize; in the real world, we reach for the visceral reaction trump card immediately.

There is no chance Conrad Black will 'reoffend'; no accountant or CFO will let him anywhere near an even slightly grey business deal. I'm pretty sure he's not looking to go back to prison, despite his affinity for those with whom he shared accommodations for more than two years. But Black is the exception. People who lament that barbarism of longer jail sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, or uncomfortable prisons, want him to rot in jail. That says more about humans and less about Black.

This sort of viscerality trumping the system isn't particular to this case of course.  I can't remember who it was that observed that, for the most part, Americans actually believe abortion is allowable a) when the health of the mother is at risk, b) when the pregancy is the result of rape, and c) in whatever my own situation is. This is a bit cynical, but it rings true.

I'm not pointing this out to say that viscerality (visceralness?) has no place in moral thinking, or to approve of a Platonic priority for reason over passions.  But if we're going to have systems, and we need to have systems, we shouldn't toss them out the window when someone or something ellicits visceral hatred or wet-eyed sympathy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Social Movements of the Obama Era

A lot of my friends were/are apoplectic about the Tea Party movement of the past year or two.  I made this chart for them and you:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

400+ pages of cheap talk

In case you need convincing that there's a difference between knowledge and conviction, or that higher education's rather unreliable as a means of moral improvement, Maclean's reports that Moummar Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam Alqadhafi, currently famous for threatening to unlease a bloody civil war on those who oppose his father's regime (and then following through), obtained a PhD in 2009 from the London School of Economics and Political Science.  His dissertation's titleThe Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to debate public policy

Jim Manzi recently did what all policy analysts and political economists are required to periodically do: he wrote about Negative Income Tax (NIT). NIT goes by numerous aliases, including Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI), Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), and Guaranteed Living Income (GLI), and is a streamlined welfare system that, in the words of the Basic Income Earth Network, involves "an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.”
Manzi does a fine job showing the system's flaws, which is not surprising; Manzi's good at what he does. What's most interesting to me is a general point about public policy debates that he makes in passing.   Regarding the apparent simplicity/'tidiness' advantage NIT/GLI has over the red-tape laden bureaucratic status quo, he notes:
it is the difference between an academic idea that has not yet been subjected to lobbying and legislation, on one hand, and real laws that are the product of a democratic process, on the other. ...[T]here is nothing inherent about an NIT that will prevent Congress from creating thousands of pages of special rules, exemptions, tax expenditures and so on, that are collectively just as convoluted as the current welfare system. After all, “tax each person a given fraction of income” is a pretty simple idea too, but look at the 2011 federal income tax code.
That's exactly correct. Being serious about policy requires us to be at least half serious about the political process and the people involved in it. What could this look like here? is a better question than what could this look like in starting-government-from-scratch-with-a-perfect-citizenry-and-perfect-politicians-ville? 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Moral Tribes

Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “hite”, like the horrible Korean beer), is a social psychologist at Virginia. He’s gained a lot of popular exposure for his research in to the moral foundations of politics. I first encountered him in this TED Talk which is quite good, and which I recommend to all students of important things. Recently I came across this talk at Edge, which is even better than the TED Talk because it’s addressed to a convention of social psychologists. It is most certainly not preaching to the choir. He even calls out a previous speaker for providing a great example of what’s wrong with his discipline: tribalism.

Haidt’s work (following Durkheim, as he mentions in the Edge piece) explains morality in terms of its social function, which is group binding. If you want to argue that this is reductionist, fine, but I think that even if we want to expand the definition, all of us would still admit that whatever else morality is or does, it definitely binds people into groups. Haidt is interesting because he takes that very basic social sciences assumption and applies it with considerable force to social scientists themselves - and by extension to highly educated liberals who think their knowledge of social science somehow exempts them from its implications.

Liberals, in other words, are just as “tribalistic” as conservatives. In his Edge talk he backs up this claim with three points usually made by social scientists when they are criticizing “backward” organizations or communities. These are directly specifically at the social psychology community, but they apply to every mostly liberal group that thinks they don’t count as a (in Haidt’s words) “tribalistic moral community. These groups:

1. have taboos and danger zones (e.g. sex differences in standard deviation on IQ scores)
2. have a statistically impossible lack of diversity (there were 3 “conservatives” among the 1000
social psychologists in his audience)
3. create a “hostile environment” for members with different views (as evidenced by several
testimonies from “closeted conservative” social psychologists)

When you live in Portland, Oregon, Haidt’s argument becomes especially convincing. People move here because they want to get away from close-minded midwestern conservatives, and congregate with open-minded west coast liberals. Functionally, there is no difference between their morality and the morality of the group they left behind. Each refuses to countenance certain heretical notions (the 2nd amendment really is in the Constitution?!), each enforces a self-perpetuating homogeneity (a trend intensified nowadays by various structural factors, as Bill Bishop explained in The Big Sort), and each creates a hostile environment for divergent opinions (try defending George W. Bush in a vegan cafe and see what happens).

Of course I could mention some evil twin sister city - Branson, Missouri comes to mind - and reverse the charge with completely different examples. That’s exactly the point.

Haidt’s point, as far as I can tell, is not necessarily that morality is therefore a bad thing, and that we should try to overcome it (in fact it seems more likely he would argue that this is ultimately impossible). The point is rather that for certain endeavors, the “binding and blinding” effect of morality is an obstacle. Scientists are the best example, which is why his thesis is so powerful when aimed at a group of social psychologists. But morality is also an obstacle in politics, where we are ostensibly aiming at the “common good,” in which case conflicts between morally bounded groups is a very large obstacle indeed.

I wonder if anything productive might come from putting Haidt’s ideas into conversation with, say, Rawls' idea of the overlapping consensus. Maybe I should read more social psychology when I start that PhD program.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pro sports and public funds

My hometown has been fretting of late about whether a proposed sports complex should receive funds, directly or indirectly, from the municiple government.

There are votes to be won and lost in the 'public money for arenas' debates, and the government of Canada has also been weighing its options (and publicly equivocating) about the matter.  Yesterday, news came of a clever roundabout way for Harper's government to financially back the projects without directly doing so.  The portion of the Federal gas tax given to cities, previously only to be used on public transit and a few other select endeavors, could possibly in the future be used for municiple projects, including arenas.  A few hours after word got out, the government sorta maybe stepped back from the idea.

As a number of recent books argue (which I admit I've only heard talked about on the radio), profitability in sports has, for a number of generations, been less about building a community-connected winning brand and more about getting governments to pay one of your major expenses: facilities.  In a sense, sports teams hold governments ransom.  If you decide your city won't try to lure or retain sports francises with direct subsidies and tax expenditures, there is surely another jurisdiction that will. The same, of course, goes for non-sports businesses.

This recent Globe and Mail piece looks at how the reactions to public funding for pro sports differs from public funding for the arts. This post on Colby Cosh's Maclean's blog makes the case that the widespead acceptance of funding for, say, an art gallary, put beside widespread antipathy towards money for a pro sports area makes perfect sense when you think about the meaning of 'public'.  Both are worth reading.

As with all political issues, and I really mean all political issues, we can find great insight into the mess by watching Yes Minister.  In this clip, two top bureaucrats discuss public funding for sports stadiums: 

Yes Minister is the best.