with great power comes great responsibility

(Image from marvel.wikia.com)

Talking to my roommate recently about the debt ceiling shenanigans that we just got through, we started discussing the impact that the Republican brinksmanship will have on the upcoming election cycle. Though I think that there’s a majority consensus among pundits and talking heads that the Republicans hold the lion’s share of the responsibility for driving the talks to the wire, and the resulting credit score downgrade, it’s easy to forget how little the punditry consensus matters.

What does matter, rather, is the perception among the general public in November 2012 as to who is responsible for the state of the economy. In past years, this has been a relatively uncontroversial determination: if the economy has been doing well, the majority party can sell their own success, while if it hasn’t the minority party can use the weakened economy as evidence that the majority party’s policies haven’t been working. But in our current political climate, this equation has become much more uncertain. With filibusters at an all time high (and as the last few months have shown), control of the Senate and the Presidency is not a guarantee of getting one’s agenda implemented. The result of this is a dramatic increase in importance of the 51st through 60th Senators.

That’s why it is now more important than ever for voters to be actively engaged with the records of their elected officials. Voters must be able to distinguish between failures or successes caused by having a simple majority in the Senate and failures or successes caused by threats of filibuster, because the two have very different implications for an election.

This would be helped if people could trust their elected officials and news media to provide an accurate portrayal of the political climate. Instead, we get Speaker Boehner saying that President Obama wouldn’t take “Yes” for an answer (which is true, I guess, if the question that Obama was asking was “Can we please structure the debt ceiling increase in a way that will piss off my base as much as possible?”) and the media reporting not the facts of the situation, but the spin that each camp puts out there. With this kind of “he said-she said” portrayal of the process, people are unfortunately subject to the last talking point they heard, because it becomes so hard to verify the reality of the situation. But that’s exactly what needs to be done, if we are to have a government that makes policy that is in the best interest of the nation rather than just in the best interest of their own re-election.

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may the best team win, unless there’s a screwup by the ump

If you follow baseball at all, you’ve probably heard about the (admittedly) blown call in Tuesday’s 19-inning marathon game between the Braves and the Pirates. I was watching this game live, and I couldn’t believe it. The throw beat the runner by a mile, and though McKenry was close to missing the tag, watching it in the moment and in a variety of replays, I still think that the umpire Jerry Meals made the wrong call. Not to say I’m not happy about the outcome… the Pirates are currently battling with my beloved Brewers and the Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central, so I was rooting for the Braves all the way. But I hate to see the game end like that, on an error by the umpire rather than a good play by either team. And it just makes me wonder . . . how long before they introduce instant replay for close calls like this?

Boston sportscaster Dan Roche is unsurprised by the fact that this call has fueled questions about instant replay, but believes that it shouldn’t be expanded beyond its current role of determining whether or not a hit is a home run:

I understand [calls for expanded use of instant replay], but I don’t think Bud Selig will go that far. And, I agree. I like the way instant replay is used now….to check home run or no home runs. Beyond that, I think it takes away the human elements and slows down the game. And, I think the calls eventually even out.

This argument makes absolutely no sense to me. “Takes away the human elements of the game”? Last time I checked, the “human elements” that should matter in baseball are the players, not the umpires. The MLB rulebook defines scoring as “each time a runner legally advances to and touches first, second, third and home base before three men are put out to end the inning”. It does not say anything about the judgment of the umpire. Now you might argue that the definition of legally assumes the judgment of the umpire. However, there are a number of other places in the rules where umpire judgment calls are made, and in each of those places, the fact that it will be a judgment call is specifically spelled out (for example, in the definition of “Infield Fly”, the phrases “umpire is to rule” and “umpire’s judgment must govern” are both used). In fact, I would argue that refusing to use instant replay in an effort to get the most accurate calls possible does more to take away from the “human elements” of the game by allowing human error to trump athleticism.

Even more ridiculous is the “slows down the game” argument. I could see that argument maybe making sense in the NFL, where I don’t recall seeing coaches storm the field and argue that frequently. But in baseball? Has Roche ever actually watched a baseball game? If you want to talk about the most pointless delays in pretty much any sport, managers arguing with the umpires are the first ones that spring to mind for me. Has anyone ever seen an umpire admit that they were wrong after having a manager come and yell at them? Maybe it has happened, but I’ve certainly never seen it. The only exciting thing about those arguments is trying to figure out if the manager is going to get thrown out or not. Why not put something in place so that there’s some recourse other than the manager futilely yelling at the ump for as long as it takes for him to feel like he’s put on a good show?

Lastly, I would expect that instant replay would cut down on the number of ejections. I can’t find any statistics on this, but my suspicion is that ejections per game are higher than in any other sport. Adding the limited use of instant replay (like in the NFL, where coaches are given two replay challenges per game, and a third if the first two challenges are upheld) would put the burden of using those responsibly on the coach. If you blow your early replays, you’ve made a choice to leave yourself at the mercy of the umpire for the rest of the game.

A lot of work might have to be put in to deciding the rules governing the use of replay, but it just boggles my mind that Major League Baseball would rather let umpires blow calls than use every resource available to them to make sure the most deserving team won. Here’s hoping my fellow Wisconsinite Bud Selig can make the right call on this (though I’m not holding my breath).

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defining your own reality

At the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin has a post on the “Ten things that happen if the Boehner bill gets through“. It’s an astonishing exercise in current Republican thought: the theories of Conservatism (tax cuts = good, government = bad) are irrefutable facts, regardless of what “reality” might have to say about it.

Among her ten things:

  • “The Boehner bill becomes the inevitable solution to the crisis.” Sure. That’s a thing that will happen if the bill gets passed… unless the bill doesn’t solve the crisis. Like if it just pushes off the debt fight until For example, it gets passed, we have another debt limit battle in the midst of an election season, and the increased tension of the pending election makes the current circus look like an exercise in good governance.
  • “The rap on the Tea Party that it is incapable of governing will be proven false.” Um… yeah. The passage of this bill (which Tea Partiers weren’t wild about in its first iteration) does not “prove” that the Tea Party is capable of governance. Even if this bill works wonders for the economy, and we’re in full recovery a year from now, that doesn’t prove that they’re capable of governance. Like they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
  • “The rap that the Republicans are divided between the Tea Party and everyone else will be disproven as well.” In 2001, the Patriot Act passed 99-1. I missed the part where this disproved the idea that America is divided between Republicans and Democrats. One joint vote does not a unified caucus make.
  • “Obama won’t have any excuse for the rotten economy.” Republicans get their demands met, without giving up any concessions to the Democrats, and that means that Obama takes ownership of the economy? Sure, that makes tons of sense.

If the Boehner bill passes, and the economy starts to make a stunning turnaround, Washington starts running smoothly and the Tea Party movement continues to grow, then this article might make sense a year from now in a “The Boehner bill: A turning point” way. But to write these things as if they’re assured following the passage of the Boehner bill? It highlights the arrogance of the Republican Party, the same arrogance that led us into two wars and a prolonged recession: “Conservative ideology assumes these outcomes. What could possibly go wrong?”

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playing games with the debt ceiling

It has been, at times, mind-boggling to watch the debates over the debt ceiling. It seems like Democrats are continually offering more and more (Reid’s most recent proposal gives up on the idea of any tax increases) while Republicans say “Nope, we’re going to need more.” Do they not understand the idea of compromise?

But this approach makes more sense when looked at through a game theoretical perspective. The debt-ceiling negotiations are playing out like a repeated game where the actions are fairly predictable. Game theory says that each player will choose the best outcome for themselves, given the potential actions of the other player. For the debt ceiling bill, a simplification of the possible actions (Compromise/Don’t Compromise) and outcomes (in the boxes) looks like this:  Continue reading

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killers vs. chillers

Building off of a Mother Jones article about the increased demands on workers with commensurate increases in pay, David Roberts at Grist describes his own approach: the “medium chill”.

[My wife and I] now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do.

But … meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.

So why do it? There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.

That’s the best thing about the medium chill: unlike the big chill, you already have it. It’s available today, at affordable prices!

Reihan Salam counters with the idea of “killers”: Continue reading

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long live king coal, ctd.

(Image from scitizen.com)

Awhile back, I wrote about James Fallows’ cheerleading on behalf of clean coal, and my own skepticism about the future of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). My issues with Fallows’ article stemmed more from a distorting/omitting of the data than anything else, but on a broader scale, I think that the assumption that CCS is the most important technology when it comes to dealing with carbon emissions downplays a lot of the uncertainties of CCS while making it seem like the development of renewables is no longer important.

So I was interested to see this NYTimes article from one of my former co-workers the other day. The article talks about AEP (a huge utility with a coal-heavy portfolio), and their recent shelving of a CCS project in West Virginia. With the prospects of climate change legislation dimming (if not completely extinguished), they concluded that the project was no longer worth the cost.

Meanwhile, wind costs are near competitiveness with natural gas fired power, and solar costs are coming down as well. Are either of these surefire solutions? Not at all. But it seems to me that they are no farther away from commercial viability than CCS, so it’s a little premature to be putting all of our eggs in the CCS basket.

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armed to the teeth

I frequently find myself scrolling through the posts on The Corner over at National Review Online, precisely because the views expressed there so frequently run completely counter to mine. It’s a good place to see smart people embrace philosophies with which I completely disagree, which forces me to rethink and clarify my positions to account for the arguments they make.

Last week, I came across this article by contributor Nancy French which defends Wisconsin’s recently-passed“concealed-carry” law, specifically with regards to those who have expressed concerns about the potential under this law that people will be able to carry concealed weapons into Lambeau Field to watch my beloved Packers. In the article, French contends that concealed-carry laws that require education and training to obtain a permit should be of no concern to anyone, as those likely to use their guns in a dangerous manner are not likely to go through the classes anyway. Therefore, you will only have law-abiding citizens legally carrying concealed weapons.

I don’t necessarily agree with this conclusion, instead believing that while a large majority of those who carry guns under this law will do so responsibly, a small minority of “bad apples” who get used to carrying around weapons under this law and eventually commit an act of gun violence in a moment of passion or permit-violating drunkenness (which though illegal seems far from impossible) is enough of an argument to raise doubts about this law. But more than that, I find myself taking issue with French’s setup for her post, in which she tells the story of an incident that prompted her to purchase a gun and undergo Tennessee’s concealed-carry training.

Continue reading

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