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Don’t follow leaders

[ 95 ] April 5, 2011 |

Anyone who has blogged or indeed done any form of journamalism for very long has published things they regret, so it’s a bit unfair to focus too much on particular lapses of judgment by a good writers, especially whenever such authors, like Job and Robert McNamara, abhor themselves and repent (sort of).

So the point here isn’t to bash anyone in particular, but rather to focus on the substance of the claim that it makes sense to trust Barack Obama’s judgment over your own because he’s supposedly smarter, better informed, better able to understand the the consequences of his actions, and more far-sighted than you are.

On at least one level I would like to believe this is true — few people are completely immune to the attractions of authoritarianism, and it would be pretty to think that our leaders are at heart good parents, who want only the best for the sometimes wayward children they protect and defend.

But I would also like to think that when I became a man I put aside childish things, and a child-like trust in the authorities is one of those things.

So in general I don’t trust Barack Obama’s judgment over my own, and I see no reason to do so. The reasons given for doing so really come down to two: he’s smarter and better-informed than I am (I take “better able to understand the consequences of his actions” and “more far-sighted” as just specific examples of, respectively, having better information and being smarter).

But is this true? In what sense is Obama “smarter” than me (or you?). It’s become a platitude that intelligence comes in many forms, but it’s a platitude precisely because it’s true. Now it so happens that Obama’s demonstrated forms of intelligence — doing well in school and being a fluent writer — are ones we share. It also happens that the value of that kind of intelligence for the purposes of political leadership, while not negligible, tends to be overstated by fluent writers who did well in school. (In terms of sheer analytical intelligence, two of the top three presidents were probably Wilson and Nixon, who are also two of the very worst). Anyway, the claim that Obama can be trusted to make good decisions because he’s “smart” depends, to put it mildly, on a great deal of faith-based reasoning in regard to both his general intelligence and especially in regard to the degree to which the specific sort of intelligence he possesses translates into being a good leader.

Then there’s the claim that Obama is “better informed.” This could mean he’s better informed in general — better educated and possessing greater relevant experience — or it can mean more knowledgeable regarding the specific issue at hand. The first claim is weak. Obama’s education was a typical one for members of the professional classes in contemporary America, and his relevant experience for the office of the presidency was unusually slender for someone in his position. So, in my view, “trusting” Obama about Libya or Guantanamo or anything else comes down to the claim that he is privy to information that makes his judgment more trustworthy than yours or mine. Now obviously this is by nature an untestable proposition — the evidence for it being the kind of evidence that ex hypothesi isn’t available to you and me — but it’s worth noting that this is precisely the same claim that was made for why people should trust George W. Bush to “keep us safe” by locking people up forever without trials and torturing some of them in the bargain.

It goes without saying that a president is going to have access to some information that isn’t available to ordinary citizens (it should also go without saying that presidents are constantly trying to expand the extent of that information gap). But in the end, decisions such as whether to place people in “indefinite detention” rather than charging them with crimes and putting them on trial, or whether to engage in unilateral warfare in the pursuit of this or that supposedly crucial national interest or universal value, are at bottom matters of principle more than of pragmatic judgment. And on that score, there’s not the slightest reason to think that Barack Obama’s judgment is to be trusted any more than George W. Bush’s was — especially given the striking similarities in many of their policies regarding the central political and moral questions of their respective administrations.

More on the constitutionality of US participation in the Libyan civil war

[ 37 ] April 4, 2011 |

Bruce Ackerman points out that Obama’s actions are arguably even more imperious than the constitutionally questionable actions of his predecessors, in regard to unilateral presidential decisions to engage in war.

As in the case of civil liberties abuses, this is yet another instance where progressives have as a practical matter almost no representation in the political process. Most Republicans have decided that their love for imperial adventures trumps their hatred of Obama (at least until something starts to go wrong), while most Democrats have either chosen to duck and cover, or have decided that Obama is so smart and wise and full of good judgment that they’ll put their objections aside.

On a related note.

Death and taxes

[ 19 ] April 3, 2011 |

I suspect James Madison et. al. would be appalled to discover that it would eventually become much harder for presidents to pursue even the most modest aspects of their preferred domestic policies than it would be for them to launch, with no congressional participation of any kind, unilateral wars against nations that hadn’t attacked America, and posed no threat to our security.

Submitted for your approval

[ 49 ] March 29, 2011 |


Assume you’re a coach of a basketball team that features a great offensive player who is awful on defense — an undersized point guard who is a brilliant play maker but whose relative lack of size and strength makes him mostly a liability on D (Steve Nash), or a small forward who can light it up on O but has terrible defensive technique and instincts and is fairly useless on on the defensive boards (Ricky Davis).

Why not play a cherry picking strategy (CPS), in which you leave that player on the offensive half of the court either all the time or at unpredictable moments? Obviously this strategery would work great if the other team is forced to take a player out of its offense, since that player’s offensive value in a 5 on 5 situation is ex hypothesi greater than your crummy defender’s defensive value. But let’s say the other team decides to play 5 on 4 instead. Advantages of the strategy

(1) If the other team turns the ball over that’s pretty much an automatic score for you.

(2) Many defensive rebounds would result in easy transition buckets — if the rebounder was apt at firing quick outlet passes, either to the cherry picker or to a team mate who could make a quick second pass.

(3) Even after made baskets the scoring team would have to be conscious of the importance of rotating someone into the defensive half court fast enough to avoid a long inbound pass to the cherry picker. This would have the additional beneficial effect of keeping the offense from crashing the boards as aggressively as they otherwise might.

The disadvantages are obvious. For one thing you would pretty much have to play a (short-handed) zone, probably a 1-2-1, and the higher the level of basketball, the better offenses become at exploiting zone defenses in a systemic way.

This makes me suspect that CPS would be more effective at lower levels of competition — that it might not work in the NBA, but might work in college ball, or lower-division college ball, or in high school.

A related caveat would be that it might work only to the extent that it was employed unpredictably: that it wouldn’t work well if a team did it 100% of the time, but it might if it were an intermittent or occasional tactic, the possibility of which the opposition would have to take into account.

I’ve watched a lot of basketball and I’ve never seen anyone try anything like this, which could mean that the idea is wrongheaded for some reason I’m not taking into account. Or it could mean that nobody has tried it for the same reason nobody used to go for it on fourth and five from the other team’s 36 yard line — i.e., there isn’t a good reason.

Update: Lots of interesting comments. On reflection, using a point guard to cherry pick is obviously a bad idea. You don’t want to use a decent rebounder or shot blocker even if he/she can’t defend worth a lick, so that pretty much means using a wing player who hates to defend but can score like hell. While there are about 30 guys who fit that description in the NBA, I tend to agree with the commentators who point out that a remarkably large number of NBA players become effective long range shooters when wide open, so that argues for using some version of the strategy at lower levels. I also like the suggestion of a soft version of the strategy, where your Derrick Rose type releases as soon as a shot goes up, or maybe very late in the shot clock. Of course you do see some of that already at all levels, but it tends to be frowned on.

Anyway, I think this is an area that, like the use of relief pitchers in baseball and kicking strategy in football, could probably benefit from more experimentation. (What definitely seems suboptimal is the point made in comments about holding players out relatively mechanically because of foul trouble).

That joke isn’t funny any more

[ 16 ] March 28, 2011 |


As he explores the prospects for turning all of America into his own personal reality TV show, the Donald has gone full birther.

The GOP establishment now has a real problem. Having engaged in ever-increasing levels of flirtation with the lunatic fringe, a.k.a., “the base,” it has awoken to find itself in bed with the ideological equivalent of Alex Forrest — and she will not be ignored.

To borrow Thomas Frank’s terminology, a few weeks ago the Mods at the Weekly Standard, George Will etc., started trying to put the kibosh on attempts by the Cons to go all in on the Crazy. Yet the Bill Ayers nonsense Scott linked below — which has since been noted approvingly by the ever-moderate and independent voices in our midst (or possibly in our heads) — makes one suspect a good part of the body politic has gone literally insane.

Update: Adam Serwer provides a useful lexicon to describe the many flavors of birtherism.


[ 29 ] March 27, 2011 |


Jay Bilas is now two games away from achieving Maximum Possible Predictive Error.

Update: Apparently two of the 5.9 million entries in ESPN’s NCAA pool chose all four semi-finalists correctly.

Given that the average seed of the four teams is 6.5, while the average seed of the tourney participants is 8, entries that chose the teams randomly were probably almost as accurate on average in regard to the composition of the final four as those which tried to determine the teams via the power of human reason.

Blogger ethics panel poses two questions

[ 12 ] March 27, 2011 |

(1) What are the odds that this encounter

As we say goodbye to Elizabeth Taylor, I’m hoping she knew this: We were never out to stalk you — we were really there to celebrate you.

In early 1992, I decided to leave Los Angeles for good and return East for a new job. As it turned out, my mother died the next year at the age of 60. Ms. Taylor, whom I rallied on in my heart to keep going for Mom, would see nearly 20 more years.

Fittingly, after all those years of covering her every waking moment, Ms. Taylor was my last image of my West Coast life. I was on my way to the airport when I stopped at a red light at Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

I looked in my rear-view mirror and there she was — Ms. Taylor and her new husband, Larry, walking into a pet store. I pulled the car over onto the side of the road. She had on sunglasses, boots and a cowboy hat. There were no photographers around. In fact, no one was watching them but me.

My first instinct, of course, was to find a pay phone and call in the photographers — I knew the pictures could be tabloid gold.

But I didn’t call. I just got back in the car and kept on driving straight to the airport. For whatever reason, I decided to leave Ms. Taylor alone that sunny California afternoon — to be in peace that day. Just as I hope she will live in peace now — far away from spying tabloid eyes like mine.

actually happened as described?

(2) Does it really matter?

The Semiotics of Sleaze

[ 26 ] March 25, 2011 |



John Calipari and Jim Tressel are two of the sleaziest coaches in sleazy business of big time college sports. “Everyone” knows this about Calipari, who has an extensive history of maintaining a conveniently comprehensive ignorance regarding the extensive shenanigans going on at the programs where he’s coached. Yet despite more than a few striking parallels with Calipari, Tressel has — or at least had until a couple of weeks ago — a “sterling reputation” as a fine Christian gentleman, a molder of young men in the tradition of Thomas Arnold, who 150 years ago first gave ideological content to the idea that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton — a pernicious bit of nonsense that Anglophile American universities have been repeating ever since.

Jon Chait ($ link) puzzles over the Legend of St. Tressel of the Wayward Recruits:

Perhaps you’ve had this experience. A fan of some other school will ask you what you think of Tressel. You say you respect his ability as a coach, but he’s kind of dirty. And they look at you like you’re some crazed partisan. Tressel? The Senator? Dirty? Come on.

We all knew it. The evidence was plain as day, right? Maurice Clarrett, spilling the beans and then recanting. Troy Smith. Youngstown State. A.J. Hawk and Nick Mangold reporting thousands of dollars in cash stolen from their apartment. (The excuse was that they come from upper-middle-class families. For those of you who have never come into contact with an upper-middle-class college student, their families tend to avail them of funds via bank accounts and credit cards, not golden handshakes. Remember seeing all those well-off guys on fraternity row, walking around with giant pimp rolls of cash? Neither do I.)

Then, of course, Terrelle Pryor, with his transparently ludicrous story of car dealerships that keep giving him loaner cars to replace his car that keeps breaking down. Either Buckeye players have been getting paid off consistently, or else there’s a massive conspiracy to create this impression.

Anyway, somehow none of this ever took hold. The national media narrative of Jim Tressel, Solid Citizen remained firmly in place. It seemed nothing short of Tressel being caught on video peddling drugs to schoolchildren would dislodge that image. And even that he could probably wriggle out of. (I could see it now: “I was there to warn them of the dangers of drug use and encourage them to stay in school.”)

My sense is that one significant factor in the different reputations the two men have acquired has to do with the cultural signaling performed by their respective self-presentations. Basically, John Calipari looks and dresses like a connected guy, while Tressel presents himself, semiotically speaking, as a cross between a stern but fair high school principal and a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination.

Clothes, as the old saying has it, make the man (the academic version of this aphorism is “Think Yiddish, dress British”).

Ordinary People

[ 18 ] March 24, 2011 |

In 1950, the white population of Detroit was by itself larger than the total population of all but four other American cities. Today it wouldn’t make the top 500.

In 2010, the white population of Detroit was smaller than the white population of Great Falls Montana. There are 40% more white people in Ann Arbor than in Detroit.

Of course African Americans who have options aren’t sticking around either.

Down at the factory,
they’re putting new windows in.
The vandals made a mess of things,
And the homeless
just walked right in.
Well, they worked here once,
and they live here now,
But they might work here again,
They’re ordinary people.
And they’re living in a nightmare.

How many wars in Islamic countries can the US fight at one time?

[ 21 ] March 19, 2011 |

Apparently, the answer is “at least three.”

The Future of an Illusion

[ 29 ] March 18, 2011 |

Jon Chait has a great new piece on the historical sources, hidden motivations, and overall incoherence of the contemporary GOP’s anti-tax dogma.

One implicit feature of Chait’s analysis is that it throws light on the extent to which “the Left” in America now means something like “people who think massive increases in wealth inequality are actually undesirable.”

Helpful oppressors

[ 395 ] March 16, 2011 |


I have some thoughts at the Daily Beast about what Casey Heynes’ response to being informed that he’s fat might tell us about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Casey’s shift from dissent to resistance, as they used to say in the 1960s, is of course extremely upsetting to people like Michelle, who want to “help” him overcome his “problem.”

This brings to mind parallels with various other civil rights movements. There have always been plenty of white people eager to help black people overcome their “problems” in the same way Michelle wants to help fat kids. They point out that a brother just needs to look and talk like Sidney Poitier and most people will stop hassling you about the black thing (hey it sort of worked for her husband).

Similarly, lots of men have over the years pointed out that women wouldn’t have so many problems fitting in to [male-dominated] society if they just stopped being so emotional and shit. And of course there’s a cottage industry dedicated to getting rid of oppression against gay people by turning them into straight people.

Inexplicably, at some point people start getting mad about receiving this sort of help. And then the helpful people get mad and resentful and scared in return. After all they were only trying to help!

Update: Several people have mentioned in comments that they can’t see how a campaign whose explicit purpose is to “solve” the “childhood obesity epidemic” within a generation (i.e., a campaign whose goal is to make sure that a generation from now there’s no or as little as humanly possible “childhood obesity”) involves fat shaming. This is precisely equivalent to a first lady making an assault on the “childhood homosexuality epidemic” her main public policy issue, with the goal of eliminating childhood homosexuality in a generation, and then having a bunch of right-thinking conservatives argue that this has nothing to do with gay bashing. Since doubleplusgoodthinking liberals seem to have a whole lot of trouble grasping this analogy, I’ll spell it out a little further: “Homosexuality = “Obesity.” “Gay” = “Fat.”

If you pathologize a human characteristic and then argue for eliminating this “disease” or “syndrome” you’ve invented via pseudo-scientific framing, it’s rather bizarre to claim that your pathological and eliminationist frame isn’t pathological and eliminationist. Saying you have nothing against “homosexuals” but that it would be a good thing to get them to stop being gay makes exactly as much sense as arguing that you have nothing against “obese” people but it would be a good thing to get them to stop being fat.

Update II: [gmack writes in comments]

De-lurking for a moment: one of the main moments in the gay liberation movement was to challenge the binary of homosexual vs. heterosexual and to replace it with the binary of gay vs. straight. They did so because the homo-hetero binary medicalized the issue (they argued that the labels turned the issue into the normal vs. the deviant), and instead they preferred the gay/straight designation because it was more egalitarian and highlighted the political dimensions of the conflict (being gay is not a medical designation but a politicized identity). In any case, Campos’ main goal is to do the same thing with “fat”–to transform the discussions about obesity from a medical/health discourse into a political one. This is not to endorse Campos’ position here or his rhetoric/argumentation style (in my view, he tends to obscure the crucial issues). Rather, I’m just trying to situate what is at issue here.

Let me also add, if somewhat hopelessly, that the question of whether being “fat” can be considered a political identity is not solvable by appeals to facts alone. When a new political identity is declared or appears on the scene, it always looks absurd (or even insulting, as that appearance often is done by way of comparison to earlier emergences–such that fat activism becomes a piece of earlier liberation movements, which some find to be a wrong and insulting demeaning of those movements; but it’s worth noting that the same attitudes emerged when, for instance, when feminists or gays raised their claims). Thus, the determination of whether one should accept or deny Campos’ claims should not be made by trying to figure out whether “fat activism” is “really” like gay activism or not; in the existing order of things, the claim is false, but the whole purpose of the claim is not to describe the truth of things but to bring into being a new organization of the world in which fat people are treated differently. So in my opinion, the question of whether to support Campos’ activism turns on the question of whether the world that this activism is trying to create is something we would want to endorse or not.

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