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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Ulysses S. Grant Was a Better President Than You Probably Thought He Was

A recent survey of 170 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section came up with a ranking of the best to worst presidents. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln was selected as the best and Trump as the worst - even among Republican scholars Trump only ranked 40th out of 44 (Note: Although Trump is our 45th President, there have only been 44 individuals who have served as President because Grover Cleveland is counted twice because he served two non-consecutive terms). A summary of the survey can be found at the NY Times ("How Does Trump Stack Up Against the Best — and Worst — Presidents?"), while a more detailed report can be found here ("Official Results of the 2018 Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey").

What is perhaps more interesting is the jump of Ulysses Grant from 28th to 21st. Like many people who grew up in the 60s and 70s, I was taught that Grant was a marginal general and a terrible President. However, Ron Chernow's recent biography of him, Grant, has challenged much conventional wisdom. He notes that much of the disdain for Grant among earlier historians has been influenced by misplaced admiration for Robert E. Lee. Chernow points out that although Lee was a great battle strategist, he lacked Grant's ability to fashion an overall war strategy. Until Lincoln moved Grant from commanding the Western Army to head of the all of the Union forces, general after general lost to Lee. Grant was unable to defeat Lee, but Lee never forced him to retreat (as he did the others), and Grant kept Lee pinned down in Richmond, allowing the other two prongs of his overall strategy (William Sherman in the deep South, and Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley) to proceed relatively uninhibited. Moreover, Lee was an unrepentant racist until his dying day. Notions that he only fought for the South because he felt obligated to defend his native Virginia is a myth. As Chernow notes, Lee “remained a southern partisan” who “never retreated from his retrograde views on slavery.”

President Grant did have his issues. His primary weakness was his credulity. Many of those around him took advantage of his unfailing trust in those he believed to be his friend, and this led to a number of scandals while he was President, scandals that never touched him directly, but it did affect peoples' perception of his administration. Still, he was the only President between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two full consecutive terms, and there were many who wanted him to run for a third in 1880 (four years after his previous term ended). Grant was also the only person who stood in the way of the South from reinstituting racial segregation. It is no accident that Lincoln's vision for Reconstruction ended when Grant stepped down as President, which set the stage for the implementation of the Jim Crow laws shortly thereafter. Grant also took active steps to curb the KKK. In fact, he put them out of business, and it wasn't until after the release of the movie, The Birth of a Nation, that the KKK was reborn. It is no wonder that Frederick Douglass eulogized Grant as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” Douglass didn't even praise Lincoln like that.

It is too difficult to summarize Chernow's argument here. His book does run over 1,000 pages. However, George Will has written an excellent review ("Hysterical mobs are crudely judging history. One book offers a better way"). Bill Clinton's review for the NY Times is also quite excellent ("President Clinton Looks Back at President Grant"). Looking for the Frederick Douglass quote noted above, I stumbled across a review ("U.S. Grant was the great hero of the Civil War but lost favor with historians") of a 2014 book about Grant ("U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth") in which the author (Joan Waugh) challenges many of the negative myths concerning Grant. It also puts forth an argument why for generations Grant has been looked down upon by historians (and as a consequence middle and high school teachers):
The “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war, created by the Confederate generation and later adopted by such influential historians as Douglas Southall Freeman, portrayed Southern commanders as chivalrous aristocrats waging a noble war against the industrialized and more populous North. They heaped praise on Robert E. Lee at the expense of the man to whom Lee surrendered.
Let's hope such interpretations are now behind us.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Benedict Option for Progressive Christians?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the Benedict Option ("A Benedict Option?"), which is a movement associated with the Crunch Con, Rob Dreher. Briefly, it takes its inspiration from the final paragraph of the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre's magisterial book, After Virtue, in which he argues that the only way to sustain a coherent moral culture in the modern world is to build “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained.” McIntyre speculates that the preservation of today's civilization may depend upon the emergence of “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” who can create local communities similar to those of Benedict's that sustained civilization and moral life through the so-called Dark Ages.

As Dreher imagines it, the Benedict Option entails a partial withdrawal by traditional Christians from the political sphere. They would still voice their opinion on public issues but no longer seek to play key roles in presidential politics. It would require “a radical shift in perspective among Christians," one in which they see themselves "as living in ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization.” Their task would be to keep “orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers, living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture,” and would be “primarily a theological and cultural project” based on radically rethinking of their place in the world.

Most associate the movement with political conservatism, but Dreher is no fan of our current President, and as I have noted elsewhere ("Geniuses for Jesus (Updated)") although McIntyre is no longer a Marxist, his take on economic issues places him closer to Karl than it does to Adam Smith. Consequently, I can't help but wonder if the Benedict Option could function as a "model" of sorts for progressive Christian congregations. It's no secret that Mainline Protestantism is struggling in terms of attracting and retaining adherents (although many Mainline executives remain in denial -- see "Mainline Denial Redux"), thus instead of worrying about church growth (and decline), perhaps Mainline congregations can focus instead on forming communities in which a robust theological, moral, and intellectual life can flourish, with the hope that they can sustain both their members and surrounding communities through our current "dark" age. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has argued, the decline of the Mainline may be good for it. It may help it recover the core of the Gospel, one that preaches and lives Jesus's radical vision for our world.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Gun Violence and Magical Thinking

Another day and another school shooting. What else can be said? I think the Economist's headline from today ("America Seems Unable to Solve a Scourge that Exists Nowhere Else: There is Nothing Surprising in this Article, Unfortunately") pretty much captures it all (see its graphic to the right). School shootings may not be a regular occurrence in the U.S., but they happen at a rate that one might expect to find in a Third World country and not in one of the most developed countries in the world.

Of course, schools aren't the only place in the U.S. where shootings take place. In fact, we have a mass shooting almost daily:
By the reckoning of the Gun Violence Archive, the killing in Florida was the country’s 1,607th mass shooting since Sandy Hook. In other words, America has had more than one mass shooting every day since then, costing 1,846 lives. (The database includes mass woundings in its count, which is why the numbers of mass shootings and killings are roughly even.)
Unfortunately, many of our politicians seem to have little motivation to address the problem. Some want to blame it on poor mental health, apparently arguing that Americans, on average, are not as mentally stable as are individuals from other countries. The data, however, simply don't support such a conclusion. Other developed countries with similar mental health levels have much lower rates of gun violence:
The toll of gun violence in other rich countries, with comparable health indicators, is negligible by comparison. America’s gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than a group of 22 other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine. This is mainly because America has so many more guns than those other countries. It has less than 5% of the world’s population and almost half of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.
25 times higher. That's stunning. It's alarming. It's scary (or, at least it should be). No doubt, some will argue that it's just another example of fake news, but just because we don't like a fact, doesn't mean that it's untrue. In fact, refusing to acknowledge that gun violence is an uniquely American problem strike's me, as someone else once remarked, as a way that some can continue to pretend that by doing nothing, somehow the problem will go away (never mind that such a strategy has yet to work). That, my friends, is magical thinking, and if you ask me, a sign of poor mental health.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Possessive Singular Redux

What's wrong with the above headline (aside from the fact that it's great that the Thunder lost)? More precisely, what's wrong with that headline's punctuation? It should read, "Davis's 43 points lead Pelicans past Thunder 114-100," not "Davis' 43 points lead Pelicans past Thunder 114-100." Why? Because Davis is singular, not plural, and the possessive singular that ends in "s" should be followed by an apostrophe and then an "s." As Strunk and White note in their classic book on grammar, The Elements of Style (p. 1), we should follow this rule "whatever the final consonant." For example we should write,
Charles's friend
Burns's poem
and not
Charles' friend
Burns' poem
Are Strunk and White alone in making this argument? No. As the authors of Grammar Smart note (p. 122), "If the word is a proper noun that ends in -s, add an apostrophe and an -s. (This is the part that people get wrong)
Yeats's poem
Ross's riddle
Chris's crisis
And aside from a few exceptions, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press agree ("Apostrophe-S vs. Apostrophe: Forming Possessives of Words Ending in S (or an S Sound)"). Still skeptical? Consider the following "real life" examples from a wide-range of authors and topics, updated from an earlier post:
Johann Arnason has pointed out that Jaspers's "most condensed statement" of the axial age, describing it as the moment when "man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations," and "experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence," is remarkably similar to Jaspers's own version of existential philosophy.
-- Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, p. 272
In using it to build a science of the materially extended world, Descartes missed the significance of empirical measurement and inductive mathematical principles in physics; he went so far as to dismiss Galileo’s law of gravity because it was merely empirical. Descartes’s methodological pronouncements missed the actual procedures of the scientific revolution as badly as Bacon’s. Nevertheless, Descartes’s deductive system became for a generation or more the leading emblem of the “mechanical philosophy”; his Principles of Philosophy in 1644 was the most comprehensive statement across the range of science, incorporating everything from physics, chemistry, and physiology to celestial mechanics into a single materialist system.
-- Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, p. 568
During our period at the abbey his hands were always covered with the dust of books, the gold of still-fresh illumination, or with fellowship substances he touched in Severinus’s infirmary.
-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 17

Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing... will not be convince... And so, with this book, I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or note Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus's historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.

-- Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 5-6

He stowed a bottle of a local rotgut called Five Island Gin--nicknamed Five Ulcer Gin--in radioman Harry Brooks's gas mask holster.

-- Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, p. 90

I plunge into a maze of cobbled alleys and mews cottages that once comprised the Circus's outstation for Covert Operations -- or in the parlance, simply Marylebone.

-- John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies, p. 106

Over the course of a week Amos [Tversky] gave five different talks about his work with Danny, each aimed at a different group of academics. Each time the room was jammed--and fifteen years later, in 1987, when Biederman left Buffalo for the University of Minnesota, people were still talking about Amos's talks.

-- Michael Lewis, The Great Undoing, p. 205

Yet it is also at once clear not only that Rawls’s priorities are incompatible with Nozick’s in a way parallel to that in which B’s position is incompatible with A’s, but also that Rawls’s position is incommensurable with Nozick’s in a way similarly parallel to that in which B’s is incommensurable with A’s.

-- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, p. 249

Note that religion is singular in James's definition and plural in Dennett's. James is describing an experience that he takes to be universal among religions of all descriptions, while Dennett sees religions as distinct 'social systems.'

-- Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, p. 8

But Harry was already pulling a roll of parchment from the owl's leg. He was so convinced that this letter had to be from Dumbledore, explaining everything -- the dementors, Mrs. Figg, what the Ministry was up to, how he, Dumbledore, intended to sort everything out -- that for the first time in his life he was disappointed to see Sirius's handwriting... "I can't stop the owls coming," Harry snapped, crushing Sirius's letter in his fist.

There are plenty of more examples, which surely these should suffice. I suspect not, however, and that I am titling at windmills.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Best Craft Breweries in the U.S., 2017

A couple of years ago, I cobbled together a list of the best craft breweries in the the U.S. based on three separate rankings ("The Best Craft Breweries in the U.S."). It seems like it's time for an update. To such an end, I tracked down three recent rankings of the U.S. craft brewers:
The first and third ranked the top fifty craft breweries, while the second ranked the top 25. Thus, I took the top 25 from each of the three lists, assigned each brewery points based on their ranking (25 for first, 24 for second, 23 for third, etc.), added them together, and arrived at a preliminary ranking of the top craft breweries in the U.S (46 in total). I then eliminated any brewery that was only listed in one of the rankings (I didn't do this two years ago, but it was possible for a brewery to be ranked high in one ranking, be completely missing from the other two, and still end up in the top 20, which struck me as misleading), which left me with 23 breweries in the following order:
  1. Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, MI
  2. Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, CA
  3. Stone Brewing, Escondido, CA
  4. Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR
  5. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE
  6. Founders Brewing, Grand Rapids, MI
  7. Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA
  8. New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
  9. Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, CA
  10. Ballast Point Brewing, San Diego, CA
  11. Firestone Walker Brewing, Paso Robles, CA
  12. Odell Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
  13. 3 Floyds Brewing, Munster, IN
  14. Oskar Blues Brewery, Longmont, CO
  15. The Alchemist, Waterbury, VT
  16. Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, FL
  17. New Glarus Brewing, New Glarus, WI
  18. Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, NY
  19. Avery Brewing, Boulder, CO
  20. Great Lakes Brewing, Cleveland, OH
  21. Left Hand Brewing, Longmont, CO
  22. Victory Brewing, Downingtown, PA
  23. Goose Island Beer Company, Chicago, IL
I then decided to modify the rankings based on each brewery's overall score on "Untappd," which is probably the most popular app for rating different beers. To accomplish this, I first rescaled the original number of points to scores ranging from 3.0 to 5.0 and then added the brewery's Untappd score (although a beer can be ranked from 1.0 to 5.0 on Untapped, most breweries overall scores, which is a weighted average of its scores on all the beers it has ever made available, range between 3.0 to 5.0). After adding these two scores together, the top 23 craft breweries are as follows:
  1. Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, MI
  2. Stone Brewing, Escondido, CA
  3. Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, CA
  4. Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR
  5. Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA
  6. Founders Brewing, Grand Rapids, MI
  7. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE
  8. The Alchemist, Waterbury, VT
  9. Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, CA
  10. Firestone Walker Brewing, Paso Robles, CA
  11. New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
  12. 3 Floyds Brewing, Munster, IN
  13. Ballast Point Brewing, San Diego, CA
  14. Odell Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
  15. Oskar Blues Brewery, Longmont, CO
  16. Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, FL
  17. New Glarus Brewing, New Glarus, WI
  18. Avery Brewing, Boulder, CO
  19. Great Lakes Brewing, Cleveland, OH
  20. Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, NY
  21. Left Hand Brewing, Longmont, CO
  22. Victory Brewing, Downingtown, PA
  23. Goose Island Beer Company, Chicago, IL
The two sets of rankings don't differ appreciably. The top four remain the same although Stone and Sierra Nevada switch places. Russian River moves up to #5 in the second ranking, and it probably should even be higher since it wasn't included at all in the Brewers Association top 50, something that strikes me as very odd. The Alchemist brewery made the biggest leap between the two lists, from #15 on the first to #8 on the second, reflecting the fact that of all 23 breweries, it has the highest Untappd rating.

Another weakness in the rankings is that a number of great breweries exist that have yet to capture national attention. The Crux Fermentation Project in Bend, Oregon, is an excellent example, as is Fieldwork Brewing Company in Berkeley, and Hapa's in San Jose. And, of course, I'm only aware of them because I visited them; other readers can certainly point to others that deserve consideration. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone would deny that the 23 breweries listed above are all excellent and deserving of their status.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Tragedy of the Commons

In Medieval England when tenants could freely use a lord's uncultivated land as pasture for their livestock. This land was referred to as the "commons" because the common people used it, and their right to use it became known as the "freedom of the commons." For a time this setup worked fine, but as England's rural population began to rise in the 18th century, the commons became overgrazed, which led to its destruction and the economic ruin of livestock owners.

To understand why, we need to recognize the fact that each livestock owner is almost always faced with the decision as to whether or not to add more animals to their herd. More animals mean more is produced, but it also means that higher demands will be placed on the commons in order to feed the animals. However, this cost will be borne by all of the livestock owners using the commons. Thus, because individual livestock owners will receive all of the profits from adding to their herd but only incur a portion of the cost for doing so, they will almost always choose to increase the size of their herd when they can. Unfortunately, since this conclusion will be arrived at by all (or at least, almost all) livestock owners, ultimately too many animals are turned loose on the commons, and it becomes overgrazed. Even as the land's productivity declines, it's still in the best interest of individual livestock owners to add to their herd. They were still "better off with more animals, no matter how skinny, than with a smaller number of equally skinny livestock" (Stark, Sociology, 10th edition, p. 416).

This phenomenon was first documented in 1833 by an English mathematician, William Lloyd, but it was popularized Garrett Hardin in his seminal 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," which appeared in Science magazine. Hardin ultimately concluded that there were only two solutions to the tragedy: (1) a highly centralized government that controlled access to the commons or (2) the right private property. The former is somewhat akin to Thomas Hobbes's "Leviathan" solution to the problem of order, while the latter is reminiscent of the invisible hand of Adam Smith's free market. Unsurprisingly, folks on the political left tend to favor more government control of the commons, while those on the political right tend to embrace the right to private property.

However, more recent research, in particular that of political scientist Elinor Ostrom, has demonstrated that other solutions exist. Ostrom's study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups found that groups can avoid the tragedy of the commons without resorting to top-down regulation or privatization if certain conditions are met ("Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles For Managing a Commons"):
  1. Define clear group boundaries
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system
I intend to explore these principles in more depth in a subsequent post, but for now it is suffice to note that Ostrom's work was so influential that she was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. Those who are interested can view here prize lecture at the Nobel site:

Friday, January 26, 2018

Will the Giants Compete in 2018?

Back in August ("Should the Giants Panic?"), I argued that the SF Giants shouldn't worry too much about how poorly their season had gone. I attributed their surprising subpar year to a combination of injuries to key players (Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence, Johnny Cueto, and Mark Melancon) and off-years from Crawford, Belt, and Pence. I conceded that Pence's off-year may reflect that he's on the downward slope of his aging curve, which could mean that 2018 won't be any better than 2017. However, I'm reasonably confident that Belt and Crawford should bounce back in 2018.

That said, I did argue couldn't stand pat; they needed to make some moves in the off season. In particular, I argued that they needed to (1) pick up a position player who could hit with power, (2) bolster their bullpen, and (3) find a fifth starter. With the additions of Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, they appear to have accomplished the first. Neither hit for power like Giancarlo Stanton, but the combination of the two should help the Giants offense immensely. In terms of the second, the bullpen still strikes me as a little weak, but Ty Blach (if he doesn't end up as the Giants' fifth starter) could prove invaluable as a middle-inning reliever, and maybe Derek Law will rediscover what made him so effective in 2016. In terms of the third, the Giants haven't added a fifth starter, but the emergence of Chris Stratton toward the end of last season was encouraging. He surely can't be any worse than Matt Moore was last year. And then there are others, like Tyler Beede, who could give the Giants a boost by summer.

One area that I didn't identify as a weakness (but should have) was the Giants' defense, in particular their outfield defense. By some metrics, they had the worst defensive outfield in MLB last year, a defense that was so bad that it increased the ERA's and WHIP's of all of their pitchers (and in particular Jeff Samardzija). It looks like in 2018 the Giants will be better. The addition of Andrew McCutchen will help, as will signing Austin Jackson. Moreover, Gorky Hernandez's emergence in the second half of last season (when he hit .281 and patrolled PacBell's CF and Triple's Alley like the Giants need) gives the Giants someone they can alternate with Pence, McCutchen, and Jackson, as well as inserting him as late inning defensive replacement.

Nevertheless, after watching the Dodgers and Astros tear it up during last year's World Series, I'm not as sanguine about the Giants chances as I was back in August. I don't know if they have the firepower to compete. What's so impressive about the Dodgers and Astros (not to mention the Cubs, Indians, and Yankees) is that it that their line-ups have few, if any, holes. It's hard to say that with the Giants. Although a line-up that includes Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and (maybe) Hunter Pence is nothing to sneeze at, I don't think it compares with the MLB's elite teams.

So, how will the Giants do in 2018? They should definitely be better than they were in 2017, but since they're in one of the MLB's toughest divisions, it'll be difficult for them to reach the playoffs. In order to to do, their pitching will have to be among the league's best (which is possible), their defense will have to be stellar (which is highly possible), and their hitting will need to be good enough so that opposing teams have to worry about someone other than Buster Posey.