IN A PERFECT WORLD

Posted in Rants on October 18th, 2010 by Ed

There's something deeply unsettling – perhaps because I'm a Polack, or maybe this applies more broadly – about Germans talking about race, cultural differences, and how people of different nationalities can best get along. Sorry guys. I'm sure Germans hate hearing this with a passion, but…too soon. I know, I know. It was 60-plus years ago. But Germany may have permanently forfeited its right to lecture the rest of us on assimilating religious and ethnic minorities.

That said, I noted with great interest these comments from Chancellor Merkel over the weekend, echoing sentiments she has been expressing more often lately:

"The approach of saying, 'Well, let's just go for a multicultural society, let's coexist and enjoy each other,' this very approach has failed, absolutely failed," she said…"We've all understood now that immigrants are a part of our country, (but) they have to speak our language, they (to) have receive an education here," Merkel told CNN's "Connect the World" program September 27.

Has multiculturalism been a failure? Well, yes, inasmuch as tolerance of different cultures within the same borders is nonexistent outside of the western world and very, very poor within it. Sure, the U.S. or Germany probably do a better job of having diverse ethnicities get along than, say, Sudan or anywhere in Central Asia or the Middle East, but we still suck at it. The U.S. has a serious race problem and a level of xenophobia that looks tame only when compared to most of Europe.

But has multiculturalism failed so clearly that the idea itself is a failure? This is the difference between saying something hasn't worked and that it cannot work. In fifteen years of thinking about this question I haven't come to any useful conclusions. I understand why forced assimilation is both undesirable and infeasible. At the same time, I think I'm to the right of most of my ideological brethren in that I also readily admit the problems caused by too little assimilation. On the one end of the spectrum you have a concerted effort to erase the cultural identity from different groups of people and on the other you have a permanent, ghettoized underclass that is there-but-not-really-there, hidden away in the shadows of mainstream society.

The real problem as I see it is that I don't think many people – America certainly isn't exceptional on this point – have the cognitive capability to appreciate/respect marked cultural differences without seeing the members of those groups as "others." The average person in the U.S., for example, understands that immigration is a permanent feature of American society and will accept, perhaps grudgingly, that different people will celebrate "weird" ethnic holidays and eat different food and generally not be the same as white people in rural Kansas. But that same person struggles, I think, to see immigrants as fundamentally the same – every bit as American as you or I or apple pie – when they talk, look, dress, act, and live differently. Some people can handle that; I don't have faith that their numbers are very large relative to the size of our country.

So even if it's Right and even if people approach the issue with good intentions, I think multiculturalism has failed, as the Chancellor points out, and will continue to fail as long as people remain incapable of seeing their neighbors as simultaneously very different and fundamentally the same. Adults should be able to handle that kind of higher-level thinking but it does not appear that they can. I guess that we will continue our futile, counterproductive practice in the West of lashing out at people who look, talk, and believe differently for refusing to assimilate, thereby making it substantially more difficult for them to do so…not to mention less likely.

It's a great system. It's working well for Germany's Muslims, not to mention Latinos in the U.S.

NPF: REALLY, CRAIGSLIST?

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 15th, 2010 by Ed

Do you ever read something brilliant and find yourself unable to stop thinking, "Damn, I wish I had written that"? Sometimes I take that feeling to the point of actual anger, as though I am mad at the universe for letting someone else write something so awesome. This Craigslist post, since removed (we'll get to that in a minute) but reproduced on Reddit (screencap here), didn't quite reach that level, but it came close.

Terrible band needed for sham of a wedding. 11/6. No pay (any takers?)

As the musician in our family, my Shylock of a half-brother and his parsimonious fiance have passed off to me the job of finding a band for their wedding. I love the kid, but his unique brand of expectant coercion and astonishingly consistent lack of judgment have left me with no recourse but to literally give him what he wants, a band that can "tear up Skynyrd, and won't cost nothin'". Since they think music is spontaneously generated via voodoo magic by assemblies of self-promoting philanthropists, I am now on a quest to find the best working band in Chicago interested in "doing it for the exposure".

If you are a serious musician that values your craft and earns a living from performance, you're probably thinking "Fuck you. Do you ask your accountant to do your taxes for the exposure?". You are not who I am looking for. Thanks for looking.

If however, you and your unemployable band of pothead hobbyists are enticed by the prospect of a free open bar stocked with the finest of suburban banquet hall well-liquor and an opportunity to run a train on the most whorish collection of self-entitled bridesmaids this side of a Sex In The City marathon, please contact me. There's probably dinner in it for you too, if the starched vagina of a "wedding planner" (bride's bff) can get her 3rd rung caterer to leave a few sandwiches in a storage closet for you at some point in the evening.

What I need from the band:

I don't care if you are an original Icelandic thrash-raga act featuring steam calliope and backwards Armageddon poetry, but I need you to be able to train wreck your way through a few requests.

Don't Stop Believing. You provide the high notes, we'll provide the smell of wine and cheap perfume.

Free Bird. Go nuts with the solo. Really. If this evening was a never-ending cascade of sonic punishment hailing down on Tom at blaringly inconsiderate volumes, it would only serve as apropos karmic revenge for the afternoons I've spent listening to Jillian chatter about OHMYGODIDON'TCAREWHAT.

Macarena/Electric Slide/Chicken Dance. It doesn't matter which one you play, but there has never been a classy party where one these songs has made an appearance. This will not be a classy party.

Do Not Play: Jessie's Girl. I used to play weddings, and if I have to hear this song one more time, I'm going to fucking cut someone.

They said they don't have any preference's for attire, so I'll take that to mean you're ok in a threadbare Megadeth shirt and black jeans.

I will provide the PA (the band and sound system are my wedding present to them).

This is not a joke. Please shoot me an email if this sounds like something you might be interested in.

Why was this taken down? Foul language? Craigslist is so chock-full of creepy shit that I can hardly imagine what puts this nasty but harmless post over the line. I mean, they have an entire "Missed Connections" feature that appears to serve a dedicated community of peepers, stalkers, and potential rapists.

Knowing from painful firsthand experience what a Chicago Suburb banquet hall wedding is like, I hope the anonymous author can find a suitably terrible band to make the evening at least mildly entertaining for himself. I have no doubt that Tinley Park or Mount Greenwood will yield a band fitting this description, something along the lines of a Molly Hatchet cover band (possibly called Flirtin' With Disaster) or five heshers who work at the same Shell gas station and have a thrash metal band that has practiced twice.

Like a minority of married couples, we actively tried to make the process less terrible for our friends, members of the wedding party, and so on. How much we succeeded is questionable, but we tried. Whenever I feel like we failed, I will read this poor guy's story and realize that we could have been much bigger assheads and done things like ask our friends to find vendors to provide wedding-related services for free.

ROYAL RUMBLE

Posted in Rants on October 14th, 2010 by Ed

Michael Barone has an interesting if shallow piece about Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels as a GOP presidential contender for 2012. I firmly believe that Daniels is the only Republican who could plausibly beat Obama. While the casual observer might consider Obama eminently beatable at the moment, incumbency is a powerful advantage and being unpopular doesn't matter as much if the opposition can't field a good candidate (see 2004). Daniels' great political asset, the one that places him head and shoulders above the sad Republican pack, is the fact that he looks and sounds like a normal human being. He always, and I mean always, sounds like he knows what he's talking about. He sounds like he went to college and might even read books in his leisure time. The same can probably be said about Mitt Romney, but unlike Daniels he comes off as fake, plastic, and insincere. Whether he has learned it through diligent practice or was lucky enough to be born with the skill, Daniels has that widely coveted ability to look and sound natural, like a Normal Guy.

Because most voters make a superficial investment in electoral politics at best, these traits make Daniels extremely popular in Indiana even as Obama won the state in 2008. Democrats and Independents, at least the kind who don't bother learning anything about a candidate's record, are easily won over by Daniels' earnest, not-too-folksy Straight Talk. Think of a younger version of John McCain (circa 2002, not the embarrassing thing we saw in 2008) with better camera skills and more money.

Though Daniels could conceivably beat Obama, Barone glosses over the obvious fact that he probably can't win a Republican primary. Teabaggers, Glenn Beck fans, Evangelicals, neocons, and the various other inmates in the GOP asylum will tear this guy to pieces. Despite being substantially conservative on both fiscal and social issues (he famously promised to shut down Planned Parenthood in his 2004 gubernatorial campaign, although he may have been lying to win over some Dobsonites) any internet item about Daniels is immediately filled with wingnuts declaring him a "RINO." His laid back, friendly doctor persona lacks the kind of WWF-style theatrics that play well with the GOP base. And for the kind of urban, college educated Republican who actually cares about issues (I know, there aren't many) Daniels may have a hard time living down some of his dubious decisions as Governor. I'm referring primarily to his deal to sell off Indiana toll roads to a Spanish corporation. The state netted $2 billion in cash for a 100 year lease, and toll revenues over that 100 years are projected at $80 billion. This is the exact same logic as taking out a payday loan. "I don't care if I have to pay back $3000 eventually – I get $500 right now!" More than one primary opponent will ask if that's the way Daniels approaches problem-solving.

2010 is going to be a good year for the GOP, but it is a harbinger of some very turbulent times in the party's near future. As Tea Party affiliated GOP strategist Richard Viguerie said recently, "We’re all on the same page until the polls close Nov. 2. (After that) a massive, almost historic battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party begins." Pat Buchanan has also forecast a pitched battle for ideological dominance in the party. Teabaggers, emboldened by what they will perceive as a mandate in 2010, will demand that the entire party hop into their Crazymobile and mash the gas pedal to the floor. Fundies will try in vain to refocus the agenda to include their pet social issues. Neocons won't give an inch on the ridiculously expensive wars in the Middle East and the overseas American military empire in general. And the moderate quasi-libertarian faction will wonder why the party they knew is now composed mostly of people who are so obviously fucking insane.

With the great Democratic victories in 2006/2008 came the unhappy realization that they would have to attempt to govern their way out of a mess of epic proportions. Similarly, the GOP will celebrate its 2010 gains only until the realization sets in that no one has any idea which one of the five different claimants to the title of Leader of the Conservative Movement is in charge. Sometimes, as one party has discovered and the other will shortly, the worst thing is getting exactly what you ask for.

HOW ABOUT A MAGIC TRICK?

Posted in Rants on October 13th, 2010 by Ed

Anti-tax zealots are the Harlem Globetrotters of politics. Having mastered the arts of deception and loaded their repertoire with all kinds of sleight-of-hand tricks, they can magically turn any argument about taxes into a series of bewildering hypotheticals that collapse under the slightest hint of scrutiny. That just happens to be far more scrutiny than an American reader, TV viewer, or (especially) talk radio listener will impose on any argument that involves the appropriateness of our current levels of taxation.

Greg "Meadowlark" Mankiw puts on a legendary performance in his recent New York Times editorial, "I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less," which proceeds from the faulty premise that Greg Mankiw's work is socially useful and anyone gives a shit how much of it he chooses to do. Sweet Greg begins by placing himself in the income brackets that will be affected by the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, admitting that he won't exactly be suffering any hardships if that happens ("I have been very lucky nonetheless. Unlike many other Americans, I don’t have trouble making ends meet. Indeed, I could go so far as to say I am almost completely sated.") Honestly, that is more than most whining top-bracketers can do, so I suppose we should give him a little credit for admitting that.

Any semblance of dignity in his argument deteriorates rapidly thereafter.

Suppose that some editor offered me $1,000 to write an article. If there were no taxes of any kind, this $1,000 of income would translate into $1,000 in extra saving. If I invested it in the stock of a company that earned, say, 8 percent a year on its capital, then 30 years from now, when I pass on, my children would inherit about $10,000.

Now let’s put taxes into the calculus. First, assuming that the Bush tax cuts expire, I would pay 39.6 percent in federal income taxes on that extra income. Beyond that, the phaseout of deductions adds 1.2 percentage points to my effective marginal tax rate. I also pay Medicare tax, which the recent health care bill is raising to 3.8 percent, starting in 2013. And in Massachusetts, I pay 5.3 percent in state income taxes, part of which I get back as a federal deduction. Putting all those taxes together, that $1,000 of pretax income becomes only $523 of saving.

And that saving no longer earns 8 percent. First, the corporation in which I have invested pays a 35 percent corporate tax on its earnings. So I get only 5.2 percent in dividends and capital gains. Then, on that income, I pay taxes at the federal and state level. As a result, I earn about 4 percent after taxes, and the $523 in saving grows to $1,700 after 30 years.

Most people don't want to see how magic tricks are performed. It takes away the sense of mystery and with it some of the enjoyment. If you are one of those people, look away, for I am about to pull back the curtain on Mankiw the Magnificent's version of the water torture cell.

The key to many magic tricks is misdirection. The preceding sentence is an example of misdirection, because the key to Mankiw's trick is simply to lie and omit a lot of relevant information. Here's how the trick works:

  • 1. Do not mention the small difference between the top bracket under the Bush cuts (36%) and without them (39.6%).
  • 2. Cover up the tiny real-world impact of this difference by compounding the investment in question over a ridiculously long timeframe. Over thirty years, his investment would be worth $1700 instead of $2000. $300 difference over thirty years of compound interest. That amount is a difference in effective rate of return of a little under 1% over 30 years.
  • 3. Compare the investment under "Obama level taxes" to how the investment would perform (over THIRTY YEARS) with no taxes at all. Don't compare it to, say, "Bush level taxes" or "some realistic tax rate that actually exists somewhere in the world." Compare it to 0%, which is the effective rate of taxation in, I don't know, Minas Tirith or Endor or something. Don't point out that what is worth a mere $1700 under Obama Level Socialism Taxes is worth a mind-blowing 300 additional dollars – over thirty years!!!!11!!!!one!!! – under Bush Level Freedom Loving Fuck the A-Rabs Taxes.
  • 4. Don't mention that the estate tax doesn't apply to estates valued at less that $3,000,000. Republicans are so good at this trick that it hardly is worth pointing out anymore. It's part of their DNA. One of two things is true, however: either The Estate of Greg Mankiw is worth less than $3,000,000 and the estate tax isn't relevant, or it is worth over $3,000,000 and I – nay, we – could give a flying dump what tax rate his kids have to pay on the three million dollars they did absolutely nothing to earn except be born and laugh at enough of Greg's jokes to stay in the will.
  • 4a. So, just to be clear, he slashes the hypothetical number in half at the end using the estate tax…which may not even be applicable here. His hypothetical assumes that it's applicable, probably because that assumption makes his argument look better. What does that $1700 look like without Greg's perplexing application of not only the Estate Tax but the maximum rate? (The 55% rate applies only to estates worth $10 or $20 million) Well, the Obama Level $1700 is actually about $3750, and the Bush Level $2000 is about $4500 if we don't quietly sneak in at the last minute and slash both numbers by 55% under the ludicrous assumption that Greg Mankiw is one of the wealthiest titans of industry in America.

    You, the magician, can use these tricks with confidence, knowing with deathly certainty that none of your readers will bother to check your math or peer underneath any of the fantastic assumptions so crucial to the structural integrity of this rhetorical house of cards. Be careful not to disturb the giant piles of bullshit; they are load-bearing.

  • A FIRST-RATE THIRD-RATE COUNTRY

    Posted in Rants on October 12th, 2010 by Ed

    I rarely find compelling anything Bob Herbert has to say, but today I came dangerously close to cut-and-pasting this in its entirety to ensure that you will read it. I'll restrict myself to an excerpt and some strong encouragement (really, read it).

    We can go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to blow Iran off the face of the planet. We can conduct a nonstop campaign of drone and helicopter attacks in Pakistan and run a network of secret prisons around the world. We are the mightiest nation mankind has ever seen.

    But we can’t seem to build a railroad tunnel to carry commuters between New Jersey and New York.

    The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough.

    The railroad tunnel was the kind of infrastructure project that used to get done in the United States almost as a matter of routine. It was a big and expensive project, but the payoff would have been huge. It would have reduced congestion and pollution in the New York-New Jersey corridor. It would have generated economic activity and put thousands of people to work. It would have enabled twice as many passengers to ride the trains on that heavily traveled route between the two states.

    The project had been in the works for 20 years, and ground had already been broken when the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, rejected the project on Thursday, saying that his state could not afford its share of the costs. Extreme pressure is being exerted from federal officials and others to get Mr. Christie to change his mind, but, as of now, the project is a no-go.

    This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us?

    I wrote about this exact topic back in March in response to the stimulus bill's curious lack of emphasis on repairing our nation's crumbling basic infrastructure. If anything, Herbert understates the problem. It isn't merely that we can't build a new railroad tunnel; we can't even keep what we have from falling apart. At one time we didn't think any challenge – technological, economic, military, or social – was too big. Now, in the misguided belief that penny-pinching is going to solve our problems, everything is too big.

    How pathetic is this? There is a fine line between American Exceptionalism – the swaggering hubris that accomplishes nothing positive – and a healthy optimism. Everywhere we see the signs not only of three decades of lousy political leadership but of giving up anything resembling concern (let alone hope) for the future. We gut forward-looking investments like education and healthcare because we don't give a flying shit about tomorrow. We hear nothing except how we can't afford anything…and who among our neighbors we should blame (Unions! Welfare queens! Mexicans! The elderly! Greedy GM retirees! Teachers! Doctors! Lawyers! EVERYONE!!) Of course we believe we can't accomplish simple goals when we're bombarded with a carefully orchestrated campaign to make us hate each other.

    To paraphrase Jimmy Carter's famously unsuccessful speech, we've sunk into a deep malaise.** It's so deep that keeping a public school open or fixing century-old urban infrastructure seems impossible. And there's no need to do any dramatic soul-searching to figure out why and how it happened. Generally speaking, when I can plausibly tell a group of people that their pessimism has gone too far, it's not a good sign. It's time to face the fact that we could build the stupid tunnel if we wanted to, just like we could give everyone healthcare, old age financial security, or a decent education if we wanted to. The problem is that we don't want to. We don't want to because we're depressed, because we're constantly told we can't, and because we don't give enough of a crap about one another to care who goes without what.

    **If you're ever in a trivia contest, note that the word "malaise" appears nowhere in Carter's "Malaise speech."

    CAPITALISM FOR TOTS

    Posted in Rants on October 11th, 2010 by Ed

    How does one explain a concept like banking to a small child? If your education was anything like mine, the first time you encountered the concept it was explained with very basic hypotheticals. Suppose Mary earns $100 and puts it in the bank. The bank has to hold onto her money for her, but they know that Mary probably won't want to take out the whole $100 anytime soon. So they loan $10 from Mary's money to Bob, and they charge Bob "interest." Bob pays back $11. Mary's $100 is safe and the bank has made $1. Capitalism for tots.

    This oversimplification is an effective way to explain banking to a 6 year old (or, as I've seen in macroeconomics textbooks, concepts like reserve requirements to 18 year old). I think it underscores an important point that seems very far removed from the minds of most people who think about abstract things like "the housing crisis", bank bailouts, and foreclosures. When we borrow money – and I say "we" because I doubt many of us go without a credit card, an auto loan, a student loan, or a mortgage – the bank is giving us someone else's money. We think of it more often than not as The Bank's Money, but the bank has no inherent resources independent of what it can convince customers and investors to deposit with it. You already know this, but I'd be surprised if many people thought about it very often.

    When I read about things like "strategic default" – defaulting on a mortgage when the value of the property collapses even though the borrower can afford to continue making payments – it is particularly important to keep the basics of lending in mind. While I am among the most enthusiastic critics of our financial system and the ethics of private enterprise in this country as a whole, it is difficult to understand how responding with equally dubious ethics will lead to better outcomes for any of us:

    Jeff Horton, a 33-year-old Orlando, Fla., technology manager, is among those who recently decided to take the step. He told his lender that he's done making payments on the condo he bought in 2005 and the home he bought in 2007, because he wants to move from Florida and can't sell or rent the properties at a price nearly high enough to cover his payments.

    Jeff Horton, a 33-year-old Orlando, Fla., technology manager, is among those who recently decided to take the step. He told his lender that he's done making payments on the condo he bought in 2005 and the home he bought in 2007, because he wants to move from Florida and can't sell or rent the properties at a price nearly high enough to cover his payments. "Life is too short," said Horton, who has mortgages totaling about $400,000 with Bank of America — about twice as much as he thinks he would get if he could sell the property. He says he has little choice because the bank has refused to refinance the mortgages or adjust original terms…"I felt guilty at first," said Horton. "It all stopped when I saw them take $90 million in executive bonuses. They take bailout money and do nothing for the little guy. They wouldn't do anything for me."

    I applaud Mr. Horton's remarkable skill at rationalizing his selfish behavior. Nonetheless, to describe this approach as short-sighted would be an understatement. In whose interest is this "strategic" default? Mr. Horton won't be getting another loan anytime soon. The bank raises the cost of borrowing to everyone – including those credit cards Horton likely uses to make ends meet – to cover its losses on the defaulted loans. And if enough people engage in this behavior, the government has to step in, through either the political process or FDIC, to cover what depositors are owed.

    I would prefer that We maintain the moral high ground in this crisis. Banks have only themselves to blame for their lack of ethics, abandonment of lending standards, and borderline sociopathic inability to accept responsibility for their actions. I understand that when people cannot pay a loan they are going to default on it. The question is, are we at a place as a society at which it's OK to blow off an obligation just because we no longer feel like repaying it? I have no sympathy for a bank that lends money to some yahoo who quite obviously has no hope of paying it back. That said, I have a difficult time mustering sympathy for a borrower who makes an investment – using someone else's money, mind you – and then expects to be absolved of the obligation when the investment loses its value.

    NPF: CRIME DOG vs. NUMBER WORSHIP

    Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on October 8th, 2010 by Ed

    All but the most casual baseball fans know that Eddie Murray is a legend – first ballot Hall of Famer and a rare member of the exclusive 500 home run, 3000 hit club. There is nothing to be gained by debating something as obviously true as Murray's status as one of the greats. Similarly, serious fans understand that, despite having the most staggeringly awesome nickname in baseball history, Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff is not going to make it into Cooperstown. He probably won't even be on the ballot anymore after a few years.

    We know Crime Dog's problem because we have all heard the argument: good but never great, no MVP awards, no singular defining moments in big games, and only six All-Star selections in 19 seasons. He is the classic "accumulator", a guy who approached big milestones simply by playing forever at an above-average level. Never a true star. If there was a Hall of the Very Good, McGriff would be in it. But not the Hall of Fame.

    So it would be pretty silly to compare Crime Dog to Steady Eddie Murray, right? Of course it would, inasmuch as they were the exact same player. No, I take that back; McGriff was better.


    PLUS, TOM EMANSKI COMMERCIALS. TAKE THAT, MURRAY.

    McGriff retired with 493 HR and 2490 hits, both short of the magical 500/3000 markers. Murray posted 504 and 3255 hits, easily clearing the hurdle on hits but just squeaking by on HR. If McGriff had hit a paltry 7 more HR over 19 years, he would get into the HOF. Why? Because everyone with 500 HR gets in. Because it's 500! Which is a magical number! McGriff with 493 = good not great. McGriff with 501 = Hall of Famer.

    Crime Dog matches up favorably with Murray in almost every category. 6 All-Star appearances in 19 season (8/21 for Murray). No MVP awards for either. One World Series ring each. A slash line of .284/.377/.509 (.287/.359/.476 for Murray). OPS+ of 134, five points above Murray's 129. Both played first base, and defense is one area in which Murray clearly outdoes Freddie (3 Gold Gloves, 6.5 career defensive Wins against Replacement). But let's not kid ourselves, nobody voted for Murray because of his D and no one will vote against McGriff on that basis either.

    Here's the best part: McGriff's failure to hit the 500/3000 marks was nothing but a stroke of bad luck. Consider the following:

  • In 1994, McGriff fell victim to the players strike/lockout. That year he averaged 1 HR every 14 plate appearances. He played 113 games. Assume a normal season in which he plays 150 games at 4 PA per game. He lost 37 games, or 148 PA. At his HR rate, that means he lost 10 HR. So without the strike, McGriff ends his career with 503 HR. Murray hit 504.
  • McGriff's first season as a full-time player was age 23. Murray started at age 21. So on a per season basis, McGriff averaged 131 hits and 26 HR. Murray averaged 155 hits and 24 HR per season. Murray crossed 500 HR just by playing a little longer – he was an Accumulator.
  • Murray hung on until the dog-ass end of his career to reach 500 HR. McGriff tried but couldn't find a team to give him the at-bats. McGriff's last season, age 40, lasted only 27 games and a 53 OPS+. Murray's, age 41, was 55 games at the same terrible OPS+ (55). The big difference was that at age 40, Murray managed to convince the Orioles to bring him back for a sentimental homecoming…and 152 games/637 plate appearances of playing time. They put him out on the field that much even though he was horrible (87 OPS+). So basically Murray should have hung it up at age 40. But he didn't. He found a team to let him play a full season and tapped out 22 HR, including his 500th.

    In short, Murray was the classic Accumulator. He was never a true superstar and he crossed the 500/3000 because he played forever and never got hurt. None of his career statistics differ significantly from McGriff's (not to mention other Accumulators like Paul Konerko, Rafael Palmeiro, or Dave "I'll play until I'm 43 to get 3000 hits" Winfield). He was a better defensive player than the Crime Dog but that is about it.

    So the question is why Murray is a first ballot Hall of Famer and McGriff is not HOF-level. It boils down to the worship of arbitrary statistical milestones, namely the 500 HR barrier. In the most important stats like OPS+ or OBP, McGriff was actually better than Murray (and Winfield). A player's career does not become more impressive – certainly not in any meaningful way – when he moves from 499 to 500. Usually sportswriters and HOF voters fall back on the "no championships" argument, but Murray and McGriff each own a ring and the same number of WS appearances. Instead, they have to rely on dumb statistics like wins, total hits, and career HR totals to include or exclude players who never played in New York or Boston failed to meet the nebulous standards of true "stardom."

    (PS: If I really wanted to be mean we could have used Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, or Winfield as a comparison instead of Murray. WTF on Dawson. Nice 119 OPS+ and .323 OBP, loser.)

  • Tags:

    BOWING TO PRESSURE

    Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2010 by Ed

    As any academic or college student (past or present) knows all too well, the textbook industry is quite a racket. Every semester students are required to buy textbooks with triple-digit prices and publishers rush to release "new editions" that rarely amount to more than cosmetic changes. Political science is one of the few fields in which a regular update is necessary (due to biannual elections, new Supreme Court rulings, new issues, and so on) but even so, publishers are now eager to release annual new editions for the biggest moneymakers – Intro to American Government textbooks. In most fields, even though an update every five years or so would do just fine publishers are desperately trying to make one last killing off of paper textbooks before the entire industry (presumably) goes electronic at some point in the next decade or two. But I digress.

    The courses that attract huge, steady enrollments – American Govt., macroeconomics, English 101, etc. – offer instructors a dizzying array of choices. The ability of publishers and authors to repackage and rearrange essentially the same information to create dozens of "different" textbooks is impressive. How many ways can you explain how a bill becomes a law? Lots, apparently, because there are probably 40-some AmGov textbooks on the market right now, each of which claims to have a unique way of presenting essentially identical information.

    As the kind of grunt who does the 325 student Intro class lecture every semester, publishers are constantly sending me new (or "new") textbooks to consider. One course adoption pays for itself many times over, even if the publisher had to mail out 200 free textbooks to various professors to get one commitment. Accordingly I see the different tricks used to differentiate the textbooks, not only in terms of content but in presentation as well. The trend over the last ten years has been unmistakable to anyone paying attention: publishers are catering to a rapidly shrinking attention span, be it real or imagined.

    This trend appears to have reached a peak with this book, Think from Pearson Education. This book, which finds its way into the mailbox of every professor who has ever thought about teaching Intro, is essentially a large magazine. That's it's selling point. It looks like a magazine. The layout appears to have been copied from Sports Illustrated. Each chapter is broken into "articles" of shorter length. Paragraphs rarely exceed a few sentences. The font is big and bold. There are pictures everywhere. A sidebar graphic of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert seems to be on every third or fourth page (although in fairness, this is true of almost every Intro book nowadays). In short, this textbook does everything possible to cater to a generation that, in the apparent opinion of the publishing industry, has an attention span of about 30 seconds.

    It might as well have "Government for Idiots" stamped on the cover, but I don't hold anything against the author for writing a book in this style. There is a market for it. And even the big, dignified textbooks from the big, stately publishing houses that would never stoop to such cheap tactics are stooping to the same cheap tactics. This raises two interrelated questions: Do undergraduates really have such poor attention spans? If so, is it right to cater to it or should we attempt to push back?

    While there have always been textbooks aimed at different, ahem, "markets" (top-20 schools vs. community colleges, for example) the tendency of all textbooks to cater to short attention spans has increased dramatically in a short period of time. For the average attention span to have fallen so quickly in the last decade would lend credence to the common refrain that constant internet access, social networking, texting, Twitter, and all of the other Signs of the Apocalypse for human communication have done everything critics have claimed – they've turned us into a nation unwilling to or incapable of reading anything longer than 200 characters. New textbooks are to old textbooks what CNN Headline News is to CNN; the same basic material stripped down, plastered with flashing graphics, and delivered in 30 seconds or less. I am not sure I buy this premise, but let us run with it for a moment.

    If this is the case, why is academia essentially throwing up its hands and accepting that we have to make teaching more like Tweeting? The emphasis on dumbed-down textbooks, online assignments, PowerPoint lectures (no more than 20 words per slide, say the experts!), and the like indicate that we do not intend to put up much of a fight. Is it not appropriate for professors to say, "Look, I am assigning a real book and you will read it, because sometimes in order to understand something you have to sit down and read a damn book about it"? If everything else is conspiring to shorten their attention spans and make their desire for instant gratification all-encompassing, it hardly seems appropriate for the ivy halls of learning to shrug and start turning education into a series of 15 second commercials and Instant Messages. Someone needs to suggest the correct habits even if the students choose to ignore the advice.

    Real learning, or at least real understanding, cannot be reached with shortcuts in most cases. There is no 30-second version of what the Constitution is about. There is no colorful 3/4-page text box with pictures of angry protesters that can convey the complexity of the 1st Amendment. How to write persuasively, why the Protestant Reformation was a historical turning point, how the money supply works…none of these are questions that can be answered in Twitter-sized chunks. Understanding issues like these demands that students do what colleges have made students do for 250 years: read something, think about it, and express their command of the material in writing. To pretend that any other method will result in real, meaningful learning is, in my view, delusional.

    I hate to think what this profession is going to look like in 20 years. I already need a full arsenal of anecdotes, visual aids, and straight-up comedy to keep (a portion of) the students awake for a (gasp!) 50 minute lecture. At this rate, by the time I'm 40 I will need a fireworks show, two clowns, and a live alien autopsy to hold their attention for more than a minute or two. The truth is that the more we play along, the more the students will expect us to cater to their technology-induced ADD. And the more we enable and encourage bad habits, the harder it will be for us to do our jobs because no amount of editorial sleight-of-hand is going to successfully boil the Federalist Papers down to a 30 word or 30 second explanation.

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    TAKE THE TEABAGGER CHALLENGE

    Posted in Quick Hits on October 6th, 2010 by Ed

    Two things. Two things that prove that the Teabagger movement is essentially daring people to vote for them. Not asking, not persuading, but extending their middle finger to say "Come on, do it. We dare you."

    1. This:

    Shorter: "I am fucking insane. Do you have the balls to vote for someone who is as obviously insane as me? I bet you don't. Pussy. But you're kinda curious about what would happen if I won, aren't you?"

    2. Teabagland has found a new enemy, one that is sure to win them a whole new realm of supporters: legislation aimed at shutting down puppy mills. That's right, their "big gub'mint" paranoia is so extreme that they are opposed to a ballot measure to shut down puppy mills. They are anti-anti-puppy mill. This is the political platform of Skeletor.

    (A)ccording to the Alliance For Truth, the main force behind the anti-Prop B movement, there is something much more nefarious afoot (er, apaw) in the HSUS measure. The Alliance For Truth claims that the HSUS has a "radical agenda" and is "misleading the public with its intentions on Prop B. The society seeks only to raise the cost of breeding dogs, making it ever-more difficult for middle-class American families to be dog-owners."

    Anita Andrews from Alliance For Truth told TPM that it's a "deceptive, lying bill" that is "trying to purposefully get rid of the breeders." The state of Missouri, she said, has been given a bad rap as "the puppy mill capitol" of the U.S. but "in truth we have the best ribbon breeders in the country." And, Andrews said, the state already has anti-cruelty laws on the books.

    "They don't like animals," she said of the Humane Society of the United States.

    I give up on trying to figure out if this movement is real or an elaborate Joaquin Phoenix-style joke.

    MUSICAL CHAIRS

    Posted in Rants on October 5th, 2010 by Ed

    When the Democratic Party fell under the spell of the Clintons and the Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s, American politics ceased to have two opposing sides on free trade and most other major economic issues. We have two parties that quibble on the margins – Should we cut everyone's taxes all the time or just 98% of the country's taxes most of the time? – but no meaningful disagreements over the free market, go-where-labor-is-cheapest policies that have taken the opportunities for non-college educated Americans to earn a decent living overseas to China, Mexico, India, and elsewhere.

    As is typical of American politics, we deluded ourselves into thinking that a painfully obvious outcome from NAFTA and other free trade policies – a large pool of people with less than a college degree either unemployed or working unskilled service industry jobs – would not happen. Those readers old enough to remember the Clinton campaign in 1992 will recall that education would make all young Americans hi-tech wizards (because that kind of work will never be done overseas!) and older laid-off workers would be retrained (in some vague and unspecified way) and made useful in the New Economy. Perhaps you recall the "Silver Bullet" speech from the TV show The West Wing, which was Clintonomics in a nutshell. Let the jobs go, we'll just focus on getting everyone up to speed for the newer, better jobs that await us.

    The problem, of course, is that we can retrain people until the cows come home and it won't matter because the jobs aren't there. We keep adding more people to the game of musical chairs, and if the number of chairs doesn't increase it really doesn't matter how quick the players are. So when the White House announces the thousandth "job training initiative" of the last 20 years in response to the current levels of unemployment it is hard not to laugh. Retraining for what? The stated goal is to match the unemployed with the needs of the major companies behind the plans, including Gap and McDonald's. It's sad that people need to be retrained to reach the level of competence necessary to fold sweaters at Old Navy or supervise high schoolers at McDonald's. Anyone else wonder if the difficulty in filling those positions, if indeed there is any, has anything to do with the fact that an adult can't live off of the money they're paying? Can't quite "retrain" ourselves around that problem, can we.

    If the government spent half as much time trying to create decent jobs as it has spent teaching the unemployed to run around in circles or master the skills necessary for $9/hr no-benefit jobs, we might actually find our way out of this mess at some point. But since the odds of that happening are so slim, I guess we'll just piss away another couple hundred million retraining people for jobs that aren't there.