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Category: General

Give up punting and rational maximizing

[ 56 ] November 2, 2015 |

occam's razor

I see this almost every weekend: a team is in a bad but not completely hopeless position, they’ve got the ball, as a practical matter they have to score to keep hope alive, and — they punt. It’s a give up play: one which unambiguously decreases the chances of winning. Three examples from the past two days, one from college and two from the NFL:


Maryland is down by 16 (two scores), fourth and eight from their own five, three minutes left, and no time outs.


Jets are down 14, fourth and seven from their own 21, 3:19 to go, not sure of time out situation.

Green Bay-Denver

Green Bay is down 19, 6:50 to go, fourth and seven from their own 32, one time out left.

Now in each situation the team with the ball is a big long shot to come back, but stranger things have happened. What’s completely obvious — so obvious that you don’t need David Romer to run the numbers — is that voluntarily turning the ball over (why punts aren’t characterized as turnovers is an interesting question) at this point in the game decreases your chances of winning from slim to a lot closer to none.

So why do coaches do this?

One explanation is that in each case the coach has performed a quick Machiavellian calculation that his own self-interest is best served by attempting to minimize the margin of defeat rather than continuing to try to win.

I don’t really buy this, or at least I don’t think it’s as much of a factor as the reflexive and indeed almost instinctual impulse that drives all sorts of coaching decisions. That impulse is to avoid an immediate bad result (turning the ball over in scoring position for the other team), even when doing so increases the odds of a much more costly bad result (losing the game).

All of which is to say that a lot of things can be explained more plausibly by assuming the decision makers in question are idiots rather than rational maximizers of their utility.


The Waaaaambulance Manifesto

[ 68 ] November 2, 2015 |

Only Republicans possess the firm leadership to complain about being asked mildly challenging debate questions:

Several Republican presidential campaigns began mapping out new demands Sunday for greater control over the format and content of primary debates, which have attracted big audiences and become strategically critical for the 2016 cycle’s expansive field of contenders.

The effort was a response to long-simmering frustrations over the debates, the questions and in some cases the moderators, which boiled over this weekend when advisers from at least 11 campaigns met in the Washington suburbs to deliberate about how to regain sway over the process.

The private gathering became the latest twist in what has been a turbulent season of debates for the GOP, with less-popular candidates — including a sitting senator and governor — furious about being relegated to a little-watched “undercard” debate and the front-runners dismayed by a system they have described as a disastrous brew of bias and arbitrary rules.

Relevant QOTD:

Collins’d II: The Dark Knight Returns

[ 137 ] November 1, 2015 |


At two pivotal moments of the game, Terry Collins let a player persuade him to stay in the game when he should have been taken out. With the bases loaded and none out in the 6th, Cespdes fouled a ball of his kneecap and was allowed to stay in the game. Needless to say, unable to put much pressure on his leg he make weak contract, and had in been a ground ball he was an near-automatic double play since he couldn’t walk. The Mets would get only one run (on, it should be noted in light of future events, a very hard-hit Lucas Duda sac fly.)

Then, of course, there was the decision to bring Harvey into the top of the 9th, although Warthen had apparently told him he was done after 8 (superb) innings. I didn’t like the move, because I prefer my closer to start the inning, but it was not as obviously indefensible as, say, burning Familia in Game 3. Harvey was still throwing hard, and his pitch count wasn’t outrageous. But after the leadoff walk? You have to get him out of there. You don’t want him pitching against Hosmer from the stretch. You have an outstanding closer, and the side benefit of your blundering the previous two games is that he’s fresh.

Again, it could have worked. I’m guessing that Hosmer coming home was a good percentage play in that he had a better chance of scoring than the Royals have of getting a hit or E/PB/WP off Familia, but a good throw from Duda certainly gets him. But still. There’s nothing wrong with Cespedes and Harvey wanting to stay in the game — that’s how athletes have to think. But it’s the manager’s job to superimpose the interests of the team on top of that, and he failed twice. I hope it doesn’t cost his team an elimination game, but it might.

…taking Niese out after one inning for Addison Goddamned Reed? Now that’s indefensible.

…a proper tribute tomorrow, but congrats to the Royals; the better team won, and they’re a wonderful team to watch.

Water Hogs

[ 28 ] November 1, 2015 |


Who are the biggest water hogs in California? Well, in the Bay Area, the worst is a Chevron exec. Second is some venture capitalist. You’d expect these two types to lead. Third? Billy Beane!

Oakland A’s big cheese Billy Beane, famous for his statistical money-saving approach to assembling a baseball team, has been far less economical with his water, according to an East Bay Municipal Utility District roster that places him among the top water hogs in the East Bay.

The baseball team’s executive vice president, for whom the phrase “Moneyball” was invented, has been slopping nearly 6,000 gallons of water a day on the grounds of his Danville estate and his swimming pool, placing him third on a preliminary list of excessive water users released Friday.

The average residential customer uses about 250 gallons a day per household.

The list of 1,108 names is not complete, according to Abby Figueroa, district spokeswoman, including only about a third of the district’s residential customers — essentially those who received penalties for guzzling more than 1,000 gallons of water per day. Still, it is an indication of the huge disparity in water use among the 1.3 million customers in 35 East Bay cities that receive water from the district.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District as a whole has cut water use by 21 percent since Jan. 1.

Beane issued a statement Friday saying that it wasn’t really his fault.

“Multiple irrigation leaks and a significant pool leak were recently discovered and are in the process of being corrected,” said the man who was using 5,996 gallons a day at home while his baseball team wallowed in last place. “We are more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage and are taking immediate action.”

More on this issue in California broadly.

The Textbook Scam

[ 101 ] November 1, 2015 |


Henry Farrell is speaking some truth here about the textbook scam.

I teach international relations at a university where political science is the most popular major. As well as teaching intensive seminars, I sometimes teach big entry level courses with 300 students. Every year I do this, I get free textbooks during the summer from academic publishers who want me to assign them. I get phone calls and e-mails from publishers’ reps, asking if they can come around and talk to me about all the great books that they have on offer. Occasionally, publishers contact me to see if I’ve any interest in writing a textbook myself. I politely decline all these gracious offers on ethical grounds. I simply don’t think it’s right or fair to force college students to pay hundreds of dollars, in addition to their tuition, for books that replicate knowledge which is freely available elsewhere.

I completely agree. I teach a 125-student intro to U.S. history course every fall. For the past 2 years, I have not used a textbook at all. Why should I have my students pay $80 or $90 when the tests are based strictly on course material and the papers on outside readings? I used to assign one so they could have one to back up the lecture material, but I realized that they were spending a bunch of money for nothing. And I’m opposed to this. I do assign a rather expensive source reader, a book called Discovering the American Past. But there is a concrete reason for this. I teach discussion sections. Unlike nearly every other source reader, which is an afterthought for the textbook writers because that’s not where the real money is, this book avoids the “let’s throw together 8 documents on the American Revolution that collectively lead us nowhere” for the strategy of creating a chapter of documents on a very specific issue that helps students understand what historians do. For instance, last week they read a bunch of documents on how Jefferson and Madison thought the French of Louisiana were not smart enough to be Americans after the Louisiana Purchase and how the Cajuns had to fight for their rights. This is a good set of documents that also helps students think about what it means to be an American today. It’s about $90 new but there are so many copies of this floating around that they can get it cheaper. It’s also the only book I assign except for a separate $20 reader that allows them to write a paper through reading a book with dozens of primary sources on the same topic. This is what I assigned this semester. So that’s a total of $110 or so for the whole semester, if they buy the books new. That’s still too much. But compared to a lot of courses, it’s better. And if it was a smaller class and I was assigning 5 or 6 short books, the cost would be about the same. But it’s the best I can do. And I’m certainly not going to then drop a big textbook on top of it. Maybe I can find a way to do this cheaper without a decline in quality, but again, there aren’t many source books out there that have conceptualized the classroom effectively.

However, next year, the new edition of my reader is coming out. And about half the chapters are indeed new. So I’m not sure what to do because if I assign the new edition, the students lose the used market. I may wait a year.

Farrell wonders why economists don’t talk about this issue more seriously. And the answer is fairly obvious–because writing textbooks can be a major cash cow and a lot of leading economists are in on it.

It may be that economists are blind to the problems of this market because they are themselves involved in it. Take, for example, Gregory Mankiw, who is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics and former head of the Council of Economic Advisers. He has also regularly taught Harvard’s required introduction to economics course, where he has required students to buy his own textbook (which now costs a smidgeon under $300), while refusing to consider donating his profits from this captive market to charity. I suggested seven years ago, that Prof. Mankiw, who is skeptical of regulators and strongly committed to free markets, consider taking his actions to their logical economic conclusion.

If I were him, … I’d claim that I was teaching my students a valuable practical lesson in economics, by illustrating how regulatory power (the power to assign mandatory textbooks for a required credit class, and to smother secondary markets by frequently printing and requiring new editions) can lead to rent-seeking and the creation of effective monopolies. Indeed, I would use graphs and basic math in both book and classroom to illustrate this, so that students would be left in no doubt whatsoever about what was happening [to them]. This would really bring the arguments of public choice [economics] home to them in a forceful and direct way, teaching them a lesson that they would remember for a very long time.

Inexplicably, Prof. Mankiw has yet to take up this suggestion. Doubtless, he thinks that his textbook is the very best introductory textbook on the market. However, it is equally likely that the chair and vice-chair of Prof. Bourget’s department have the same opinion of their required textbook. This doesn’t change the underlying economics of the situation, or of the textbooks racket.

There’s no question that too many professors are subjecting their students to real financial burden unnecessarily. I know that there are not very many ways for academics to make extra money that is more than peanuts. Elite professors writing textbooks is one of those ways, although obviously an opportunity only for the very few. But it’s pretty awful to buy that vacation home directly on the backs of your students, especially when they have so many other financial pressures on them.

Fred Dalton Thompson

[ 31 ] November 1, 2015 |

Very entertaining character actor (I use the middle name that used to be used in the credits for the occasion.) Generic Republican senator. Seeker, sort of, of Republican presidential nomination who inspired one of Belle Waring’s greatest posts. Regrettably more enthusiastic promoter of reverse mortgages. R.I.P.

How should I vote? Ohio edition

[ 37 ] November 1, 2015 |

It’s rare for me to be undecided on how I’m going to vote with 48 hours to go, at least on an issue or race I care about, but here I sit. While 2016 is shaping up to be the year the dam breaks on marijuana legalization, Ohio has the only recreational legalization initiative on the ballot in 2015. I’m on record here as a proponent of the view that while some approaches to legalization are preferable to others, these policy details matter a great deal less than ending the practice of making criminals out of marijuana users as soon as possible.

Issue 3 is testing the limits of that view. It represents the best and worst of initiative politics at once. The best, of course, is that a dreadful policy with elite consensus support is finally being effectively challenged. The worst is that issue 3 is a cynical exercise in profiteering; it would set up a constitutionally mandated monopoly for 10 sellers, who are, unsurprisingly, bankrolling the campaign. (Further demonstrating the absurdity of initiative politics, opponents are supporting issue 2, which would make state-created monopolies unconstitutional. What happens if both issue 2 and 3 pass? No one seems to know!) My inclination would be to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and contribute to ending the gross injustices of the drug war the first chance I get, but in this case, should issue 3 fail, there appears to be a much better initiative for the 2016 ballot, which should also produce a friendlier electorate. Is a year’s worth of arrests and prosecutions a price worth paying? I’m curious to hear how our Ohio readers/voters are leaning.

How Economics Became a Right-Wing Field

[ 35 ] November 1, 2015 |

Ely-Richard-TRichard Ely

Conservatives never include their beloved Economics departments in their denunciations of left-wing academia because what they actually want is the whole of the university to reflect Economics and providing intellectual justifications for greed and the personal predilections of the wealthy. Economics has not always been that way and it’s always had a minority who took a more honest view of the field. Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger on the origins of the right-wing take over of the field in the Gilded Age:

Meanwhile, Ely’s economics colleagues were moving in the other direction, and not simply under duress, as Adams had been. University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. At the same time, some of the more moderate members of the economics old school were making overtures to moderates in the new, recognizing the threat that manifestly improved scholarship posed to their authority in the field. Also in 1886, Charles Dunbar, the chair of the Harvard department, brought out the first issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, an alternative peer-reviewed channel to the AEA’s Proceedings (now the American Economic Review, to date the leading journal in the field), which was under Ely’s iron grip. His opening essay welcomed the empirics of the AEA’s cohort but denounced any tendency to political or social reform—a direct challenge to Ely.

Between 1886 and 1892, Ely’s control over the AEA weakened. Adams and Clark plotted to oust him from the Secretaryship in 1887, though they were dissuaded, and in 1888 the organization’s platform was modified to be more conciliatory over Ely’s objection. In 1890, a publications committee was put in place, expressly removing him from sole authority over the Proceedings. The final straw came in 1892, when Ely made a bid to re-assert authority by holding the AEA’s summer meeting at Chautauqua itself. That appeared to signal a public partnership between the professional organization and a popular reform movement. A compromise was brokered wherein at that meeting, Ely surrendered the Secretaryship and left the organization. The new regime was led by Dunbar himself.

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

What was lost in the eclipse of radicalism at the AEA? The economic tracts of that era began to enshrine the perfectly competitive market at the center of the intellectual firmament in economics—work then being formalized mathematically overseas by Leon Walras and Alfred Marshall, to be imported to the US by the likes of Clark and Irving Fisher and embellished by their successors in the mid-to-late 20th century. There has always been disagreement within the academic economics establishment, but it has largely adhered to the establishmentarian bent set down in 1892—and won itself great intellectual prestige in so doing. What political involvement there is in the field is almost exclusively on the Right, as attested by recent cases of donor influence on economics departments at Florida State, Kansas, and numerous others, aimed at routing out any challenge to free market orthodoxy. Much more notable than those cases of overt politicization is the broader alliance of economics with the country’s business establishment, in the form of lavishly funded business schools and research programs to the benefit of the field, far and above what’s available to any other discipline.

Fur for the Future

[ 18 ] November 1, 2015 |


In 1950, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game produced a film on moving fur-bearing animals around to maximize their production. Watching the beginning is amusing for how managing marten is somehow connected to the Turnerian view of western history that mid-century American land managers absolutely loved and used all the time. The second best part of this is wondering why these people are handing animals without gloves, which becomes an issue later in the film. But the real highlight is watching the state of Idaho parachute beavers from airplanes.

Conservatives Want to Bring Politics into Academic Hiring

[ 146 ] November 1, 2015 |


I don’t think there’s a single more surefire way to draw attention to yourself than to claim that academia discriminates against conservatives.

As for the question of why there are more liberals than conservatives in academia–and note the op-ed conveniently leaves out economics and the enormous and growing business schools in this discussion–it’s about two things. First, studying the human past and present in depth tends to challenge the mythology about the world conservatives hold dear. I’ve known many a person who came to graduate school a conservative and came out a liberal. One includes a founder of this blog. It’s not because of some Clockwork Orange-style indoctrination. It’s because understanding the world tends to make people rethink their position. Studying the history of race, class, gender, sexuality, environment, etc., tends to do that. Given how strongly conservatives don’t want to have us study those subjects in high school or college, you can see why they would be chafing over having to deal with that in academia and worrying that studying these subjects creates liberal “bias,” i.e. a realistic understanding of society’s complexity.

Second, it’s that conservatives are unlikely to take low-paying jobs in professions that have no future. Chalk that up to conservatives being smarter than liberals I guess.

But the idea of there being an active liberal bias is ridiculous. Rather, it’s conservatives bringing politics into academic hiring by evidently wanting–dare I say it–a quota on conservatives in academic departments. I guess a professor’s politics are supposed to matter in hiring if it benefits right-wingers.

Tetch Writing

[ 51 ] November 1, 2015 |

Possibly more qualified to write tech articles

Britain’s Lowest-Budget Edward Cullen, Milo Yiannopoulos, is spreading his wings and–apparently–writing “tech” articles for Breitbart “News.” I say “tech” because Milo is as qualified to write articles on the tech industry as I am qualified to write about, say, 18th century opera, which is to say, not at all. So I’m expecting Breitbart to offer me a position heading their 18th Century Opera section any minute now.

Anyhoo, Milo’s foray into “tech” is going exactly well as you’d expect it to. Two sample titles from his articles?



Admittedly these are both terrific titles, but I think Milo can do better. If he really wants to get peepers on his “tech” “articles” I think he should up the ante and go with stuff like:




Come on, let’s all help Milo! Create your own “tech” headline in the comments.


[ 60 ] November 1, 2015 |


There is no shortage of potential Met goats in the game that left the Royals in command of the World Series despite trailing 4-3 going into the 8th. Cespedes getting doubled off as the trailing runner on a soft liner to end the game is inexcusable — the only upside of his disastrous in all aspects series is that Mets fans will feel less bad when he signs elsewhere — but needing two runs with two outs against Wade Davis is a pretty dire situation even in the absence of the Little League baserunning. Murphy’s error was indeed hugely important. But errors happen, and without the two walks it’s not a big deal. Clippard walking Cain (37 BB in 604 PA this year) after getting ahead 0-2 was the turning point in the game, but what do you expect out of a guy who hasn’t had decent stuff in more than a month? Who was nonetheless pitching in an ultra high-leverage 8th inning. Wait, what?

We need to back up here, because the biggest blunder of Satruday’s game occurred on Friday. Going into the series, the Mets had two obvious weak spots — bullpen depth and infield defense. The latter played a major role in two losses, but there’s not much you can do about that. With respect to the former, however, the Mets had the chance to attenuate the disadvantage, because they ran up a huge lead in game 3. Terry Collins, however, decided to bring in by far has best and really his only reliable reliever to pitch an inning with his team leading 9-3 and playing again the next two days.

The only possible defense of this is if Collins thought that Familia was capable of throwing five or six innings in games 3-5. Even then, it’s not a good idea — if he throws an inning in Game 3 and two in Game 4, you can’t count on him being effective throwing 2 in Game 5. But even that defense is unavailable, since Collins said after the game that it affected his decision not to bring Familia in for a six-out save. So, as far as category of blunder goes we’re firmly in Darrell Bevell/Grady Little territory here.

Of course, the Mets could have won anyway, had Murphy made the play. Familia could have blown a six-out save. But, then, Malcom Butler could have dropped the ball, or Jorge Posada’s bloop could have been directed towards a fielder. Coaching blunders can never guarantee a loss; they make the percentages a lot worse than they need to be. Collins lost with arguably his worst available pitcher starting the 8th inning, in part because he wasted his best reliever in an extremely low-leverage situation the night before. Given that it was a pivotal World Series game, that’s an historic blunder.

Ned Yost, on the other hand, had his closer well-rested, and he came in at the beginning of the 8th. Checkmate.

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