Tuesday, 22 July 2008

“Bold and Unapologetic Opportunism”

I leave you this fine evening with a column by Shelby Steele. It is the best column (on any topic) I have read in many months.


Here is a scene from today’s stage of the Tour de France. Here is tomorrow’s stage—the most difficult of the 2008 Tour. I’ll be up at 5:30 (6:30 Eastern time) to watch it live on Versus. If you can’t catch the live version, you can watch a replay from noon to 2:00 (Eastern time), from 2:30 to 4:30, from 5:00 to 7:00, or from 8:00 to 11:00. These replays are edited so as to capture the most exciting parts of the stage. Look for Andy Schleck and his CSC teammates to destroy Cadel Evans on the final climb to L’Alpe d’Huez. If Evans survives the onslaught, he deserves to win the Tour.

Mary Warnock on F. H. Bradley (1846-1924)

No doubt, in Duty for Duty’s sake [sic], he [Bradley] is not entirely fair to [Immanuel] Kant, but all the same this seems to me one of the very best things ever written about Kant’s moral philosophy.

(Mary Warnock, Ethics Since 1900, 2d ed. [London: Oxford University Press, 1966], 7)

Note from KBJ: Here are Mary Warnock’s Top 10 Philosophy Books. Students of philosophy, take note.

Sustained Excellence

To me, the National Baseball Hall of Fame is for players who exhibit sustained excellence. Not sustained mediocrity, and not merely a burst of excellence (such as Joe DiMaggio exhibited). There’s a reason that 3,000 hits is a benchmark for a hitter. One can get there by averaging 200 hits a year for 15 years or by averaging 150 hits a year for 20 years. There’s a reason that 500 home runs is a benchmark for a hitter. One can get there by averaging 33.3 home runs a year for 15 years or by averaging 25 home runs a year for 20 years. There’s a reason that 300 victories is a benchmark for a starting pitcher. One can get there by averaging 20 victories a year for 15 years or by averaging 15 victories a year for 20 years. The benchmark for a relief pitcher should be 600 saves. One can get there by averaging 40 saves a year for 15 years or by averaging 30 saves a year for 20 years. Mariano Rivera has 467 saves. He has a few years to go before people start talking about the Hall of Fame.

Addendum: Since some pitchers both start and relieve (at different points in their career), and since no pitcher can get both a victory and a save in the same game, I’m willing to allow victories and saves to be added to get to 600. Rivera has 467 saves and 66 victories, for a total of 533. He needs two or three more excellent years to make it to the Hall of Fame. Note that Trevor Hoffman already has 596 victories plus saves. Dennis Eckersley has 587. Lee Smith has 549. No other reliever comes close to these four, and therefore no other reliever should be in the Hall (even though some, such as Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage, are).

Addendum 2: Postseason performance doesn’t count. Not everyone has the good fortune to play on a team that makes it to the postseason on a regular basis. I’m sure that this restriction will make Yankee fans howl. Don’t listen to it. The Yankees have been trying to buy pennants for decades (it’s the brute-force method), so naturally they make it to the postseason on a regular basis, which, if allowed to count for the Hall of Fame, would put more Yankees in the Hall. The Hall already has many Yankees who don’t belong there—so much so that the term “undeserving Yankee” is pleonastic.


He’s not a talker
But he hates the right people
George W. Bush


Less than six months from today—on 20 January 2009—there will be a new president. Will it be President Obama? President McCain? President Romney? President Clinton?

Addendum: George W. Bush has been president for 7½ years. He has half a year to go before returning to civilian life. Evaluate his presidency. Extra credit for haikus.

A Year Ago



I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again: I don’t understand cheating. To me, the rewards of participating in rule-governed activities such as sport or academics are internal, not external. How can you feel good about yourself if the only reason you prevailed over the competition is that you cheated (i.e., violated the rules)? I honestly don’t get it, and if I don’t get it at 51 years of age, I probably never will.

That said, I know that cheating takes place. There are people (evidently) who value external rewards, such as fame and fortune, more than internal rewards, such as pride and self-respect. As long as this is the case, there will have to be an enforcement mechanism. Let’s think about this. Cheaters, if they’re rational, believe that the benefits of cheating outweigh the costs. They know that there is a nonzero probability that they’ll be caught, and that the consequences of being caught will be dire. They must think, therefore, that the probability of punishment is low. The expected value (benefit) of cheating exceeds the expected disvalue (cost) of cheating.

Those of us who care about clean competition can work to increase either the probability or the magnitude of punishment for cheating. I believe professional cycling is doing both. When the expected cost of cheating approaches the expected benefit, the amount of cheating will decline. Will it ever drop to zero? I doubt it, for two reasons. First, cheaters are creative. They will try to stay one step ahead of the authorities. New drugs will be invented. As soon as a test is developed for those drugs, others will be invented. Second, there will always be people who think they’re smarter than the authorities, or who believe that, while the probability of being caught is high, it’s not so high as to preclude success. I believe that Floyd Landis knew there was a high probability that he would be punished for using artificial testosterone before that fateful stage of the 2006 Tour de France, but that winning the Tour was worth the risk. After all, he might just get away with it! Perhaps he rationalized his cheating by telling himself that everyone else was doing it, or had an opportunity to do it. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t cheating; it means he wasn’t the only one who was cheating.

To me, sport is first and foremost a test of willpower. It takes willpower to train, which is expensive (in the economist’s sense of opportunity costs) and painful. (No pain, no gain.) Look at how much suffering Lance Armstrong experienced during his training for the Tour de France. It’s mind-boggling. The rules of a sport are designed to reveal (to the world) which athlete has the greatest willpower. If someone cheats, we don’t get this valuable information. For all we know, the winner is the person who has access to the best drugs or doctors rather than the person who has the greatest willpower. As for what the rules should be, that’s a different question. Perhaps cycling should allow the use of artificial testosterone, or EPO, or steroids, or human growth hormone. But once the rules are set, everyone should obey them. The rules structure, and indeed constitute, the activity.

Twenty Years Ago Yesterday

7-21-88 Thursday. The Democratic National Convention is over. Like Jeff Greenfield, a lawyer and journalist who covered the convention for ABC news, I’m a political junkie. I absorb the imagery, controversy, and personalities of political life. But to many Americans, apparently, the convention was a grand bore. Everyone knew in advance that the nominees would be Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen [1921-2006], and even the anticipated tension between Dukakis and Jesse Jackson did not transpire. They announced early Monday, before the convention began, that they had patched up their differences and that Jackson would be a “member of the team”. This signalled [sic; should be “signaled”] to Jackson’s delegates that they should not be obstinate or divisive. The Democrats wanted to appear unified and strong going into the fall campaign against George [Herbert Walker] Bush. That they do. It was a well-orchestrated spectacle. There were few demonstrations, inside or outside the center; glossy signs were meticulously prepared and distributed; and the candidates and speakers did their best to stay on schedule so that the main speeches would appear during television’s “prime time”. Whoever organized this convention did a good job. It was like watching a four-day advertisement for the Democratic party.

What rankles me is the oft-repeated claim that the convention was boring. Early television ratings show that viewership was low. Anyone who reads this journal knows that I am critical of the popular intelligence. This supports my claim. When you think about it, politics—especially national politics—is the most important thing in our lives. It is the process by which we define and shape our collective destiny. It determines who gets what, when, and where. It establishes our relationship to other nations. It sets forth a vision of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. Politics is the sum and substance of our social life, and our lives are nothing without society. But does this matter to most Americans? No. They would rather watch the Cosby Show or go to a movie. We live in a complacent age, an age in which people do not care about the laws under which they live, the leaders they have, or the policies that guide us. I’m ashamed to be a member of this society. [I would have been more at home in ancient Athens.]

I’m also rankled by the attitude of television executives. This evening, on Nightline, there was a discussion of the role of television at a political convention. Roone Arledge [1931-2002], the president of ABC news, said that the major political parties are in danger of losing television coverage because of the way they smooth over controversy and hide decisions from the viewing audience. During this discussion, it became clear what Arledge wants. He wants controversy, infighting, name-calling—the sort of thing that viewers get on afternoon talk shows like Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and Geraldo. He wanted Jesse Jackson’s delegates to storm out of the convention center until they got their platform planks. He wanted boycotts, demonstrations, stalemates, booing, and filibusters. In short, he wanted action. This, as I said the other day, is the prevailing conception of news. News is controversy, dispute, emotion. It is not calm deliberation or compromise. I fear for this republic when there is not only viewer apathy but a combat mentality among our television executives. They put a premium on differences rather than on education and participation.

Lloyd Bentsen’s acceptance speech was pro forma, but I thought Michael Dukakis did a masterful job with his. He touched upon old Democratic themes, such as justice, equal opportunity, and family. He painted a vivid picture of the United States during a Dukakis-Bentsen administration. And he reached out to all of the traditional Democratic constituencies: organized labor, teachers, homosexuals, Hispanics, Native Americans, the handicapped, small-business owners, the young, and the elderly. This is dangerous, because the Democrats are known as the party of special interests, but Dukakis managed to emphasize community and family, both of which are unifying themes. The best part of the speech, strategically, was to portray the Republicans as the party of selfish individualism. The Republican ideal is single individuals, making it on their own, without assistance of or interference by government. In contrast, the Democratic ideal is a partnership between the individual and the state. This may not sell well in some quarters, but I find it attractive.

From the Mailbag


This is not exactly germane to your comment, but interesting. An economist has tried to estimate the lifetime cost of smoking.

Mark Spahn (West Seneca, NY)

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

As I read of Diane McLeod’s unfortunate financial plight, I was struck by the photograph of her with cigarette in hand and ashtray on table. I wonder if Ms. McLeod has considered how much she could increase her cash flow if she were to quit smoking. $100 a month? $300 a month?

Jonathan Ballon
Darnestown, Md., July 20, 2008
The writer is a medical doctor.

Note from KBJ: Come on! A pack of cigarettes a day, at 35¢ a pack, comes to $127.75 a year, or $10.64 a month.