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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Cheers for Conservative Religion

Not long ago ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion"), I urged folks, in particular those on the political left, to refrain from mocking the conservative religious beliefs of working class women and men. In doing so, I didn't argue that they couldn't be critical of them, but that's different from mocking them. In order to critically engage others about what they believe, you first have to respect them, which means that at the outset you can't think that you're smarter or more sophisticated than they are. If you do, then no matter what you may tell yourself, it's impossible to truly respect them.

It is just as important to recognize that although some of the beliefs embraced by theological conservatives are problematic, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, to put it differently, there are some aspects of theological conservatism that are redemptive, that actually improve the lives of individuals. For instance, there is considerable evidence that Pentecostal churches have helped improve the lives of thousands in South America; by demanding that members (in particular, male members) stop drinking and put in a full days work in their jobs, family incomes have risen substantially and spousal (and child) abuse have dropped dramatically. Similar effects have been witnessed in the U.S. as well. Consider, for instance, the following examples:

1. The book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, tells the true story of Louis Zamperini's journey from juvenile delinquent to track star to prison of war. As the book (but not the movie) makes abundantly clear, after he returned from the war, Louis's life slowly spiraled downwards. To forget his tormentors (one in particular), he drank increasingly, waking up at home sometimes without knowing where he left his car. And his marriage deteriorated to such an extent that his wife announced that she planned to divorce him. However, Louis turned his life around, and it was a Billy Graham Crusade that did it. Louis stopped drinking, smoking, and spent the rest of his life preaching the virtue of forgiveness. In fact, he returned to Japan in order to meet with and forgive his captors (one--the "Bird"--refused to do so).

2. The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, tells the true story of Desmond Doss, who as a combat medic refused to carry or use a firearm or weapons of any kind. He became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Okinawa. In particular, during the battle, he saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen atop the area known as Hacksaw Ridge. It will come as a surprise to some that Doss's pacifism was rooted in his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, beliefs which most observers of religion would consider to be "theologically conservative."

3. In his NY Times best seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance recounts his experience of growing up poor in Appalachia (in Ohio and Kentucky). In it, he notes the important role that the church can/could play in the revival of the area. "Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all… It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church; it’s that church seems to promote good habits” (p. 92). According to Vance, the
church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me—and for the people struggling in that world—religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track. (pp. 93-94)
Thus, as those on the theological and/or political left (of which I consider myself a part) try to address and understand the grievances of those who supported Donald Trump for President, a good first step would be to recognize that conservative religion confers tangible benefits to its adherents and that it's okay to embrace its positive aspects. A second step would be to take the time and energy needed to truly understand conservative forms of religion, not as they are often caricatured in the media, but in terms of their actual beliefs and practices. Those who take such time would discover a level of sophistication that many on the left don't realize exists.

More than once I've remarked that it's  tempting to portray our ideological opponents as immoral, stupid, or both. It may be tempting. It isn't, however, helpful.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lakers Are Why the Warriors Went After Durant

Have you heard that Paul George wants to play only one more year for the Indiana Pacers and then move to Los Angeles and play for Lakers? And the rumor that LeBron James plans to finish his career with the Lakers seems grows stronger everyday (much to the chagrin of Cleveland fans); the latest is that James's wife wants to live in LA year round, which may prod James to jump ship sooner rather than later.

George and James are not unusual in their desire to play for the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Ron Artest, and Gary Payton are among several players who left the teams that drafted them in order to play for LA. Why? Most hoped they would win a title, and many (but not all) did just that. That's probably what's floating around in the back of George's mind, and James is still chasing Jordan's six titles (never mind that Bill Russell has 11!), and he may believe he has a better chance of doing so in LA than in Cleveland.

All of which might help explain why the Warriors went after Kevin Durant last year. It wasn't just because he added a level of insurance to an already great team ("The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant"). It was because they knew, or at least sensed, that before long, some of the NBA's top players would bolt for LA and (once again) turn the Lakers into a contender if not a "superteam." If the rumors are to be believed, it looks like they were right.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant

The dominant narrative is that the Golden State Warriors wouldn't have won this year's NBA Championship if they hadn't signed Kevin Durant last July. That's entirely possible, but it ignores the fact that last year, when they "blew" a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the final two games of last year's finals, the Warriors played with an injured Steph Curry and without their starting center, Andrew Bogut, whom many consider to be one of the best, if the not the best, defensive center in the NBA. As I've noted previously, winning championships not only takes a lot of talent, but it also usually requires a little bit of luck ("What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry"). Last year the Warriors didn't have it. This year (and in 2015) they did.

But that still doesn't mean that they couldn't have won it all this year without Kevin Durant. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article noted ("The Warriors Didn’t Need Kevin Durant To Be This Good"), what Durant means for the Warriors is that rather than having a very good shot at winning the title every year, now the Warriors have an excellent shot. Injuries and other forms of bad luck will stay play a role, but Durant's presence on the team helps minimize the ill effects of such bad luck:
While adding Durant has been a success, it didn’t end up breaking basketball any more than the Warriors had broken it already.

Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors won 84 percent of their games this year — up from 83 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Teams have only won 80+ percent of their combined season games 11 times in the 70-year history of the NBA.1 The Warriors have now done it three years in a row.

But the Warriors’ mission isn’t just to win titles, it’s to guarantee them. And Durant is both icing and insurance policy — a guarantee that the Warriors will always have an MVP-caliber, one-man offense available. Though he makes them a little bit better in his own right, his main value comes from making what happened to them in the 2016 playoffs less likely.
So, haters can complain about the Warriors signing Durant in the off season, but there's still a good chance that the Dubs would've paraded around Lake Merritt this past week anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's Really Not OK to Kill People

This morning, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, opened fire on Republican Representatives and staffers, who were practicing for the upcoming baseball game between Democrats and Republicans. According to his brother, he was unhappy with the recent election and had recently traveled to DC to protest policies proposed by President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.

I get why people get frustrated. When laws and regulations are passed that one opposes, its easy to feel powerless, to get angry, because it seems like there's nothing one can do, especially when the next election is almost two years away. But violence is not the answer. Not only is it morally wrong (we used to call it a sin, but that's intellectually unfashionable these days), it solves nothing, and in fact only hands the opposition a moral victory. So, it's time for folks to dial things back. It's okay to be angry, but take it out by sending emails to newspaper editors, calling your local and state representatives, marching "vigorously" against policies that you oppose, or on the elliptical cross-trainer at your gym. But, it's really not okay to kill (or try to kill) people. Really.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

NBA MVP: Who'd You Rather Have on Your Team?

Recently, a news reporter asked a Montana Republican who he trusted more: Donald Trump or James Comey. "About the same," the guy answered. Then the reporter asked a follow-up question, "Who would you buy a used car from?" After an uncomfortable chuckle, the man replied, "James Comey." To get to the truth of a matter, sometimes you have to ask the right question.

This exchange comes to mind when I think about the debate over who should be the NBA's MVP. The finalists are James Hardin, Russell Westbrook, and Kawai Leonard. My guess is that it'll come down to either Hardin and Westbrook. However, I think people are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, "Who's the NBA's MVP?", they should be asking, "Who would you want on your team?" And seriously, would anyone pick Hardin or Westbrook over Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Kyrie Irving (or Kawai Leonard for that matter)? I don't think so. If there's anything these playoffs have made clear is that James, Durant, Curry, and Irving operate at a completely different level than do others in the league. Especially when it counts.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why Do Terrorists Attack Just Before Elections?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed that it seems that some terror attacks are timed just before an election. It happened a few weeks ago in France, and it happened just yesterday in the UK, less than a week before June 8th's Parliamentary election. In the current climate many, if not most, observers believe that such attacks help more conservative political parties because they're typically seen as being more supportive of "robust" security measures ("The London Terror Attacks May Mean More Votes for Theresa May's Conservative Party").

However, if they are right, then that raises a interesting question: Why do terrorists carry out such attacks if they help political parties that are more likely to oppose them coercive? It isn't because they don't know what they're doing. As I've pointed out previously, terrorists are not stupid and, in fact, are often quite well educated ("Terrorists Aren't Stupid (Nor Are They Ignorant)"). Thus, it's likely that they carry them out because they believe it's to their benefit to do so.

But what benefit might they derive from such attacks? I'd argue that it triggers political reactions that leaves the impression that those of us living in the West do not like Muslims, that we are hostile to the Islamic way of life. For instance, ISIS has reportedly referred to President Trump's proposed travel ban as the "blessed ban," not because it helps the world's Muslims, but because it helps to reinforce the belief that Muslims are not welcome in the West.

What can we do? Well, we need to work hard to counteract such an impression, whether we do so through ecumenical events at our own faith communities or by paying friendly visits to local Islamic mosques. I confess, however, our task is quite difficult when so many of our politicians seem more interested in inciting animosity toward Muslims than they are in welcoming them as full and faithful members of the democratic West.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What Was Hunter Strickland Thinking?

With two outs in the top of the 8th inning of yesterday's game between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, Giants reliever Hunter Strickland threw a 98mph fastball at the Nationals' Bryce Harper, hitting him in the hip, apparently in retaliation for Harper's behavior after hitting two home runs of Strickland in the 2014 playoffs. (To be fair, Strickland denies throwing at Harper, but most observers find this hard to believe.) Harper then charged the mound, the two exchanged punches (I think Strickland landed a better right), and both benches emptied. Evidently, this is the first time Strickland has faced Harper since then, so he decided to take advantage of the situation. Who knows? He may not get to face Harper for another 2 1/2 years!

But, what was Strickland thinking? The Giants were losing 2-0 at the time, very much in the game against a team with a sketchy bullpen. It's not as if the Giants are tearing up the league at the moment (at least not in a good way), and they need every win they can get. And true to form, the runner who took Harper's place (he was ejected) eventually scored. The last thing the Giants need right now is to intentionally give other teams opportunities to score. It's telling, I believe, that when Harper charged the mound and both benches emptied, Giants catcher Buster Posey remained out of the fray, possibly a subtle message from the Giants' best player, that Strickland's actions were ill-advised and inappropriate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Was Hillary's Campaign Really Doomed?

A recently released book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, purports to explain "why" Hillary Clinton lost the election for president to Donald Trump. As the subtitle suggests, the campaign was doomed from the start. However, even the book's authors (Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen) were surprised that Hillary lost, which should give readers of the book pause. In fact, as the physicist and sociologist Duncan Watts reminds us in his book, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), it's very easy to "predict" the future, once you know what it is.

As I noted in a previous post (For Those Condemned to Study the Past - Whenever Possible, Count!), this is known as hindsight bias, a term coined (I believe) by the social psychologist, Amos Tversk, which (according to Tvesky) is "the tendency [for historians] to take whatever facts they had observed (neglecting the many facts that they did not or could not observe) and make them fit neatly into a confident-sounding story:”
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. All too often, we feel like kicking ourselves for failing to foresee that which later appears inevitable. For all we know, the handwriting might have been on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?
So, yes, I'm sure that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but on the other side of the election, I'm willing to bet that they weren't all that obvious, even for Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why Your Local Public High School Is Probably Better Than You Think (a repost of sorts)

Status reproduction is a process highlighted by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu; it refers to how the status of a person, group, institution, etc. is reproduced by virtue of its status. Consider, for example, college football programs. The best high school players generally want to play for the top programs, which makes it easier for those programs to recruit and attract more of the best players, which in turn helps them remain top programs. This can be true even if they don't have great coaching. Because of the level of talent they attract, they often win in spite of the coaching on the field.

A similar process occurs in many industries. Take the venture capital (VC) industry, for instance. Most entrepreneurs hope to receive funding from top VC firms, not just because these VC firms are seen as being more "wise," but also because their ties with the top attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers raise the probability the entrepreneurial companies will succeed. What this means for VC firms is that the top (i.e., the high status) VC firms often have their "pick" of the entrepreneurial companies to fund, while lower status VC firms do not. Moreover, top VC firms will typically be able to command better terms with their investments, such as getting a larger stake in the start-up's equity. To illustrate, imagine two VC firms, X and Y, with X being a high status firm and Y being a low status one; if both invest $1 million dollars in entrepreneurial company Z, all else being equal, X will get a greater share of the company Z's equity than will Y. Then, if company Z goes public, X will reap higher profits than will X.

What does this have to do with high schools? Status reproduction among them as well. Imagine, for example, two schools: A & B. Available teachers have been randomly assigned to both so that the teaching quality at both schools will be the same. The schools differ, however, in that most of the best students attend A and most of the worst students attend B. It doesn't take a genius to see that school A will score better on various standardized tests, enjoy a higher graduating rate, send more students to college. But it won't do so because of the teaching but because it attracted more of the best students.

Now, consider a slightly different scenario with the same two schools, except this time their average performance on standardized tests is a combination of innate student ability and teaching quality. On their own (i.e., without teaching) students can score between 0 and 50 (out of 100), but with teaching they can raise their scores by 0 to 50 points. So, for instance, a student with the highest innate ability (50) who receives the best possible teaching (50) will score 100 out of 100, and a student with no innate ability who receives the worst possible teaching will score of 0. Now, imagine that the average student ability at school A is 45, while the average student ability at school B is 30. This means that in order for B to score as high (or higher) than A, the quality of teaching at B has to 15 points better than A. Now, imagine a scenario where school B has the best teachers in the state and add 50 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 80, while A has good but not great teachers who add 40 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 85.

To be sure, these two examples are stylized, but they illustrate how school performance is not necessarily an indicator of teacher quality. To be sure, at one time school A may have had some of the best teachers in the district, and that's why it initially attracted better students, but that doesn't mean that it still has the best teachers. Unfortunately, a lot of parents interpret scores and graduation rates in just that way, and consequently (if they possess the requisite resources) they send their kids to schools they think are better but actually might not be. Currently in Silicon Valley, the divide between school A and school B type schools tends to lie between private and public schools, and among public schools, the divide is typically between those in wealthier neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

Divides such as these are almost certainly overstated. My own daughter (Tara) attends a public school (Del Mar) that some folks still see as having a bad reputation. However almost all of her teachers have been excellent, and she has been accepted into the top two public universities in the U.S. (UC Berkeley and UCLA), two of the top regional universities on the West Coast (Chapman and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo), along with UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, and Sonoma State. In other words, if parents paid less attention to test scores and more to teacher quality, they might realize that their local public high school is probably better than they think it is. Acting on such a realization could save them a lot of money. It would also help boost public schools at a time when they're under attack.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Russell Westbrook Needs to Play More Like Joe Montana

Back when Joe Montana still played for the 49ers, a glance at his passing yards could tell you in an instant how the Niner offense functioned that day. If Montana threw for 250-290 yards in a game, then you knew that the offense had put together a well-balanced attacked, and the Niners probably won the game. However, if Montana threw for more than 300 yards, then it was likely that the offense struggled and the outcome of the game into doubt. In other words, the Niners were better as a team when Montana's personal stats were more modest.

I think the same could be said for Russell Westbrook. The Thunder play better when his personal contributions are more modest. He put up some incredible numbers this year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but when he got his teammates involved and stopped trying to do it all by himself, that the Thunder played well. As Fox Sports columnist Brent Pollakoff recently noted ("5 Things the OKC Thunder Need to Fix"). Westbrook needs to "dial it back":
This is the most difficult task ahead for the Thunder, especially after Westbrook likely will be coming off of an MVP season. But his historically high individual usage rate didn't translate into any real team accomplishments, and as we saw in the fourth quarters throughout this playoff series, his insistence on taking seemingly every single shot (no matter what the defense was like or where he was on the floor) only hurt his team's chances down the stretch of close games. 
Westbrook proved his point in his first season without Kevin Durant by his side; we all know now that he can play as well as anyone in the league whenever he feels like it. But he needs to dial it back next season and get his teammates involved so he doesn't have to do it all alone. Only then will his team have a chance at true success.
This means, of course, that the Thunder need to upgrade the talent surrounding Westbrook, but, as Pollakoff points out, it also means that the Thunder need to use the regular season to develop the Thunder into a "team" so that Westbrook he doesn't feel like he has to do it all but instead can relax and play more like Joe Montana.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Trump and Syria

I think it was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who remarked a few years ago, "that just because George W. Bush says or does something, doesn't mean he's wrong." Friedman, of course, was criticizing those (primarily) on the left, who knee-jerkily opposed anything "W" did. Friedman's sentiments hold true for our current President. Just because Trump does or says something, doesn't mean he's wrong, which is probably why so many on the left are scrambling after he ordered missile attacks after Syria's President Assad used nerve gas on some of its citizens, including children.

In keeping with his tradition of never accepting responsibility for anything, Trump blamed Obama for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and he is probably correct that Obama's choice to use diplomacy rather than military force (something that Trump applauded at the time, by the way) didn't have any palpable effect in reigning in Assad. Trump deserves some of the blame, though. Just a week before the attack, Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, both stated that ousting Assad was no longer a goal of American policy, statements that Assad almost certainly saw as signals that he could do just about anything he wanted and Trump would look the other way.

My own take on the missile attack is somewhat mixed:
  1. If Trump was genuinely moved by the effects that the nerve gas had on children, then more power to him. President Jimmy Carter was derided by political conservatives for basing his foreign policy, in part, on human rights concerns, so it would be rather ironic if human rights play a large role in Trump's foreign policy. However, if Trump fired the missiles in Syria and dropped the MOAB in Afghanistan because it helps his approval ratings (see "Wag the Dog"), then we have something to worry about.
  2. If the missile attacks have successfully ended the bromance between Trump and Putin, even better. Trump's admiration for Putin is disturbing, and anything that can put an end to his hero worship can only be a good thing for America.
  3. It's unclear if the missile attacks will have any lasting impact on Assad's regime. Assad may go right on being Assad unless Trump makes it clear that he can't. Nevertheless, Trump seems to be more interested in stopping ISIS than he is removing Assad.
  4. I find it disturbing the glee with which Christians in particular, and Americans in general, greet the killing of others. Although the just war tradition does argue that under certain conditions war is permissible as long as it is conducted in a just manner, no where does it state that victors should revel in the suffering of others. Rather, it sees war as a necessary evil that should be conducted with humility and regret.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

For Those Condemned to Study the Past - Whenever Possible, Count!

In 1972, the psychologist Irv Biederman asked Amos Tversky to deliver a series of talks at the State University of New York at Buffalo about his work with his colleague Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman, both of whom were psychologists, were in the process of publishing a series of articles that would challenge classical notions of human rationality and help give birth to what is now known as behavioral economics. [1] For their work together, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, an award he almost certainly would have shared with Tversky if Tversky had not passed away six years before. Their basic insight was that under conditions of uncertainty, individuals tend to rely on rules of thumb, what they called heuristics, when making decisions. Unfortunately, these rules of thumb often lead to errors in judgment.

In all, Tyversky gave five talks at Buffalo over the course of a week. Each was aimed at a different set of academics, but the one that Biederman kept going back to was the last one, which Tyversky called, “Historical Interpretation: Judgment Under Uncertainty.” [2] Drawing on a yet to be published study by two of Tyversky and Kahneman’s students, Baruch Fischoff and Ruth Beyth, [3] Amos argued that historians were just as susceptible as anyone else to the cognitive biases that he and Kahneman had identified. Fischoff and Beyth conducted a survey prior to President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and Russia. They asked respondents to assign probabilities to 15 possible events (e.g., Would Mao Zedong agree to meet Nixon? Would the United States and the Soviet Union create a joint space program?). After Nixon returned, Fischoff and Beyth asked the respondents to recall the probabilities they assigned to the various events. They found that for those events that did occur, the respondents consistently assigned higher probabilities after the fact than they did before, and for those events that did not occur, they consistently assigned lower probabilities. This tendency became known as hindsight bias, and in his talk Tyversky spoke about the occupational hazard of historians: “the tendency to take whatever facts they had observed (neglecting the many facts that they did not or could not observe) and make them fit neatly into a confident-sounding story:” [4]
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. All too often, we feel like kicking ourselves for failing to foresee that which later appears inevitable. For all we know, the handwriting might have been on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible? [5]
Pick up a handful of biographies on historical figures -- say, Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan -- and depending on the authors' biases, very different stories will be told about those figures, some positive, some negative. This, of course, is what makes history so difficult. In fact, Fischoff later wrote an article about this entitled, "For Those Condemned to Study the Past" (see footnote [4] below). So, what are historians to do? I would argue that when possible, quantify. As the sociologist Rodney Stark noted somewhat sarcastically a few years ago (Cities of God, p. 209):
In 1962, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. -- on leave from the Harvard history department to serve as a White House intellectual for John F. Kennedy -- told an assembled audience of American scholars that "almost all important [historical] questions are important precisely because they are not susceptible to quantitative answers." Such arrogance thrilled many of his listeners, as clever nonsense often does. For others it prompted reflection on how someone so poorly trained had risen so high in the profession of history. In truth, many of the really significant historical questions demand quantitative answers. They do so because they involve statements of proportion: they turn on words such as none, few, some, many, most, all, along with never, rarely, seldom, often, usually, always, and so on.
Of course, some historical events are impossible to quantify, but it is surprising just how many are. For example, the archeologist Anna Collar has drawn on social network analysis (SNA) to analyze Jewish epigraphs in order to map the diffusion of Rabbinic Judaism across the Roman Empire from 100-500 CE (Religious Networks in the Roman Empire). Similarly, Barbara Mills and her colleagues have drawn on SNA and other quantitative techniques as part of their Southwest Social Networks (SWSN) Project, which is exploring Late Pre-Hispanic Southwest. [6] Robert Woodberry has empirically demonstrated with numerous statistical models that the presence of Protestant missionaries is a strong predictor of literacy and democracy ("Missionaries and Democracy"). And economic and social historians have explored (empirically) numerous topics, such as the causes and consequences of the Protestant Reformation and why capitalism first emerged in the Christian West rather than Islamic Middle East.

In short, it can be done. History can be quantified. Not always, but probably more often than many would like to admit. The question is whether those who are "condemned to study the past" are willing to embrace quantitative approaches that can avoid, or at least minimize, errors in historical judgement.

[1] Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, "Subjective Probability: A Judgment of Representativeness," Cognitive Psychology 3, no. 3 (1972); "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica 47 (1979); Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, "Belief in the Law of Small Numbers," Psychological Bulletin 76, no. 2 (1971); "Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability," Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (1973); "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," Science 185 (1974); "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice," Science 211 (1981).

[2] Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: The Friendship That Changed Our Minds (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 206.

[3] Baruch Fischhoff and Ruth Beyth, "'I Knew It Would Happen' - Remembered Probabilities of Once-Future Things," Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13 (1975).

[4] Lewis (p. 207) notes that at least “Amos was polite about it. He did not say, as he often said, ‘It is amazing how dull history books are, given how much of what’s in them must be invented.’” (Note: Baruch Fischoff attributes this saying to Catherine Morlund – see Baruch Fischhoff, "For Those Condemned to Study the Past: Reflections on Historical Judgment," in New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Science, ed. Richard A. Shweder and Donald W. Fiske (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1980), 79.)

[5] Quoted in Lewis, 207-08.

[6] See e.g., Barbara J. Mills, Jeffery J. Clark, Matthew A. Peeples, W. Randall Haas, Jr., John M. Roberts, Jr., J. Brett Hill, Deborah L. Huntley, Lewis Borck, Ronald L. Breiger, Aaron Clauset, and M. Steven Shackley. 2013a. "Transformation of Social Networks in the Late Pre-Hispanic Southwest." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110:5785-90; Barbara J. Mills, Matthew A. Peeples, W. Randall Haas, Jr., Lewis Borck, Jeffery J. Clark, and John M. Roberts, Jr. 2015. "Multiscalar Perspectives on Networks in the Late Prehispanic Southwest." American Antiquity 80:3-24; Barbara J. Mills, John M. Roberts, Jr., Jeffery J. Clark, W. Randall Haas, Jr., Deborah L. Huntley, Matthew A. Peeples, Lewis Borck, Susan C. Ryan, Meaghan Trowbridge, and Ronald L. Breiger. 2013b. "The Dynamics of Social Networks in the Late Prehispanic US Southwest." Pp. 185-206 in New Approaches in Regional Network Analysis, edited by Carl Knappett. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Don't Mock Working Class Religion

Recently, a self-proclaimed "Silicon Valley liberal," Sam Altman, traveled the U.S. to interview Trump supporters in order to gain a better understanding of their point of view. His on-line article includes a number of quotes, but the first one he lists is telling:
You all can defeat Trump next time, but not if you keep mocking us, refusing to listen to us, and cutting us out. It's Republicans, not Democrats, who will take Trump down.
This, I think, captures much of what bedevils the Democratic party. It has lost touch with its working class roots. It has become elitist. It's not that it no longer advocates policies that benefit working class women and men, but somewhere along the way, it seems to have lost its respect for them, and often it can't resist mocking them. I think this is best captured in the way that some regard working class religion. Some can't resist making fun of it, mocking it. Conservative Christianity is repeatedly portrayed as backward and ignorant, although studies by social scientists challenge such a blanket assessment (see e.g., American Evangelicalism by Christian Smith; "Rationality and the Religious Mind" by Laurence Iannaccone, Rodney Stark, and Roger Finke; The Truth About Conservative Christians by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout).

I am reminded of when I was researching a paper on the Promise Keepers. I ran across a story about two African-American women who were active members of Democratic Party but attended meetings of the Christian Coalition, a theologically conservative advocacy group. When asked why, they responded, "We'd rather be with people who make fun of our politics than who make fun of our faith."

No doubt, the hostility that some hold toward working class religion is because many associate conservative religion with conservative politics, but it doesn't have to be (and hasn't always been) that way. People often forget that although William Jennings Bryant argued for the prosecution in the Scopes Trial, he was a three-time nominee for the Democratic Party, an outspoken critic of crony-capitalism, and a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State because of the U.S.'s entry into World War I. And Dwight Billings ("Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis") has documented how evangelical religion played a key role in the Appalachian coal miner strikes in the early 20th century. Independent rural churches of the Holiness and Baptist sects located outside the company towns allowed the National Miner's Association to set up soup kitchens for evicted miners and their families, and they 'lent a hand in the strike'" (p. 18). And has anyone seen Hacksaw Ridge? True story about a 7th-Day Adventist who worked as a medic in WWII and became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 soldiers. It's time to let our stereotypes go.

Of course, all this does not mean that one cannot critically engage the beliefs and practices of others. However, to engage someone critically requires a level of respect, something that is conspicuously absent the beliefs and practices of others are mocked. Time will tell whether Democrats will learn difference between to the two.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why a Free and Adversarial Press is a Good Thing

In the book of Job, the member of God's court who challenges God concerning Job's righteousness is called "the satan" ("ha-satan" in Hebrew), which has traditionally been translated, "Satan" (with a capital "S"), but is more correctly translated, "the adversary" or "the accuser." His role is somewhat analogous to what we often call a "devil's advocate," that is, someone who challenges the status quo, the accepted wisdom, what the majority takes for granted.

Researchers have found that devil's advocates provide numerous benefits, the primary one being that they prevent "group-think." Cass Sunstein ("Why Societies Need Dissent"), for instance, has shown that juries are more likely to reach reasonable decisions, social investment clubs are more profitable, and religious groups are less likely to radicalize if they include members who are unafraid to (and not prevented from) embrace a minority position. I recently drew on Sunstein's theory in order to explain the radicalization of the Hamburg Cell, the members of which played a major role in 9/11 ("Social Networks and Religious Violence").

All of this came to mind when some have wondered why Senator John McCain thinks that a free press is a good thing, even if it is sometimes an adversarial press. I don't know whether McCain has read Sunstein (or perhaps me?), but I suspect that he intuitively knows (as did the framers of the U.S. Constitution) that a healthy democracy is one that not only permits dissent but encourages it. Democracies need individuals and institutions that challenge the accepted wisdom for the simple fact that the accepted wisdom is sometimes dead wrong. What they say or write may upset us, and their critiques may turn out to be incorrect (they often are), but we still need such critiques, at least if we still want to live in a democracy, which is why (as McCain pointed out) the press is often one of the first things that authoritarian governments target.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Why I No Longer Engage in Facebook Debates

Some folks have noticed that other than emoticons and minor clarifications I seldom respond to comments to items I've posted on Facebook. That's because I refuse to engage in debates on Facebook (or other forms of social media) over political and social issues (I am inclined to debate the merits of different IPAs, however). I've learned the hard way that such debates seldom settle anything, are usually counterproductive, and as such are a colossal waste of time. Basically, my approach to interacting on Facebook is as follows:
  1. I post articles and memes that I find interesting or funny that typically have to do with current events or sports (usually Bay Area sports).
  2. I try to only post from reputable sites (i.e., not fake news), and if I later discover that I have posted something that is from a bogus site, I delete it. Keep in mind, though, just because you don't like the content of a post, it doesn't mean it's "fake." In fact, dismissing things or opinions one dislikes as "fake" is no different that burying one's head in the sand, a poor recipe for a healthy democracy in my opinion.
  3. Although, as I noted above, I seldom respond to comments about articles, I definitely don't respond to comments if someone hasn't taken the time to actually read the article (I can tell). 
  4. It seems that some take offense to posts that are critical of political figures, arguing that because they hold a particular office, they deserve our respect. I beg to differ. Although I will always respect the various offices that our politicians hold, I do not feel obliged to respect everyone in those offices. They first have to earn that respect. This is an important difference, but it is one that seems lost on a number of people. Just in case anyone's wondering, I generally don't respect people who boast about sexually assaulting women, use racist memes in their campaigns, and make fun of people with disabilities.
  5. Finally, if you really want to debate an issue, I'm open to meeting over coffee or (better yet) an IPA.
That's all for now.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start

Donald Trump's election will almost certainly prove to be a boon for social science PhD candidates, who otherwise would've been scrambling for a dissertation topic. No doubt, each will offer their take on why Trump managed to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate. A handful of explanations have already been put forth, such as a recent essay in the Harvard Political Review on the "Alabamafication of America" and a rediscovered lecture/essay from 1988 by the late Stanford philosopher, Richard Rorty, but I think future dissertations will need to tackle (or at least should tackle) the portrait of Appalachian working class whites painted by J.D. Vance in his instant classic, Hillbilly Elegy. Trump is not mentioned once in Vance's book, but Vance's description of growing up poor in Ohio and Kentucky helps one get a handle on the alienation that much of the working class feels towards the political establishment.

Most folks who read the book presume that Vance is a liberal. He is, after all, an Ivy League (Yale) trained attorney working for an investment firm in San Francisco, and the bulk of the book focuses on the causes and consequences of poverty. Vance, however, is a conservative. Reflecting on this presumption shortly after speaking at a gathering in New York, Vance remarked in an interview with the Washington Post, "It’s very interesting, right? It seems to me an indictment of the Republican Party that if you talk about issues of poverty and upward mobility, people assume you’re a Democrat.” Vance is not a Trump fan, though, and did not vote for him in the election. He believes that Trump "ran an angry, very adversarial campaign that in tone matched the frustrations of the people I wrote about. He certainly ran a pretty cynical campaign, and got a lot of votes from people who are feeling cynical about the future."

It seems to me that for whatever reason (or rather reasons -- seldom can you reduce any phenomenon to a single factor), the Democratic party has lost touch with its working class base. I'm not sure what it needs to do to recapture it, but reading Hillbilly Elegy is probably as good a place to start as any.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Sound Like Anyone You Know?

DSM 5 refers to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association's classification and diagnostic tool that was published in 2013 (it is essentially unchanged from DSM IV, which was published in 1994). It notes that a narcissistic personality disorder is a (1) pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), (2) a need for admiration, and (3) a lack of empathy. People who "suffer" from it display five or more of the following symptoms:
  1. Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. Being preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Believing they are "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. Requiring excessive admiration
  5. Having a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations)
  6. Being interpersonally exploitative (i.e., take advantage of others to achieve their own ends)
  7. Lacking empathy: unwilling to recognize or identify the feelings and needs of others
  8. Being envious of others and believing that others envy them
  9. Displaying arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Sound like anyone you know?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Consider Us Dinosaurs, They Will

I recall watching a television movie some years ago, which was about a coach who helped integrate college athletics. For the life of me, I can't track down the movie's name or the coach it was about (my recollection is that it was based on a true story), but it contained a line that has stayed with me. When asked whether he was racist, the coach replied, "Of course, but I have great hope for my kids." The coach's remark may be apocryphal, but it captures how all of us are products of the cultures in which we are raised and in which we live, and how difficult it is for us to transcend them.

Unfortunately, many of us fail to recognize this. In fact, it has become quite fashionable to heap scorn on the backwardness of earlier generations, especially historical figures from those generations that are often held up as "great." For example, when Bernie Sanders was asked which foreign leader he took inspiration from with regards to foreign policy, he pointed to Winston Churchill because of his leadership in the fight against Hitler and the Nazis. For this, Sanders was excoriated by some on the left because as Sanders noted, Churchill was something of a conservative and pursued policies (both foreign and domestic) that reflected his colonialist upbringing. Another favorite target, especially among Mainline Protestants is the Apostle Paul. Although one can make a pretty strong case that for his time Paul was rather progressive, many of us Mainline Protestants can't resist demonstrating how much more enlightened we are than someone who lived 2,000 years ago.

I'd like to suggest an alternative approach to evaluating the "greatness" of historical figures, one that takes its cue from statistics. When researchers use statistical methods with samples of data in order to test the likelihood that an observed association between two variables (e.g., level of education and voting for Trump), they determine whether the observed association differs significantly from a scenario in which there is no association at all. Specifically, when the former is greater than 1.96 standard deviations from the latter, the difference is considered to be "statistically significant," which means that there is only a 1 in 20 chance that observed association is spurious. In terms of the graph below, when the observed association falls within one of the tails of the distribution (shaded in the graph), it is considered to be a statistically significant distance from the distribution's mean ( = 0).

What has this to do with judging individuals from the past? I would argue that we can consider those who differ significantly from the population mean on various issues as potentially "great." In fact, pushing the analogy a bit farther, we could consider those who differ in one direction from the population mean as dinosaurs, while those who differ in the other as enlightened (in statistics, these are known as "one-tail" tests). Easier said than done, of course, since it's a bit difficult to return to the past and conduct surveys. However, we can roughly "estimate" how much various individuals deviate from the mainstream of their day. And I would argue that approaching history with such a framework would help us be a bit more tolerant of those from the past. That doesn't necessarily mean condoning their beliefs and behaviors, but it might prevent us from judging them too harshly. And, if such an approach catches on, it might prevent future generations from judging us too harshly although that's probably just wishful thinking on my part. As Yoda might say, "Consider us dinosaurs, they will."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What if Kyle Shanahan Says No?

It's official. Kyle Shanahan is the last remaining candidate for the 49er head coaching position. All of the other candidates have either accepted other positions or have withdrawn their names from consideration, which raises the obvious question: What happens if Kyle Shanahan says no? What if he tells the Niners he'd rather remain the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator? Who will coach the Niners then?

Such a scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Niner head coaching position isn't the most attractive in the NFL. As Steve Ruiz of USA Today put it a few days ago ("Kyle Shanahan should avoid the 49ers job"):
Why would Shanahan want to leave Atlanta - and guys like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman - for a team with no quarterback and a dearth of offensive playmakers? The 49ers rosters is still years away from competency, but the incompetent owner seems to think the team should win now. And when it doesn't, don't expect York, who runs the organization, to hold himself accountable... Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula got one year apiece despite overseeing one of the least talented rosters in the league. Give Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll that team, and you're getting roughly the same results.
One has to wonder if that is why Josh McDaniels decided to remain the New England Patriots offensive coordinator for another year. The official reason was that he didn't want to move his family, but local columnist Tim Kawakami has speculated more might have gone into his decision not to take the Niner position ("Josh McDaniels pulls out of 49ers’ search, so now Kyle Shanahan has all the leverage; do York and Marathe understand this?"):
I believe, and have believed from the outset of this long search, that the only candidates who possibly could fix the 49ers should and will have strong demands for Jed/Paraag, who have very much proven that they don’t like strong demands. We just saw the result of those competing interests, I’m very sure. 
McDaniels had the leverage to ask York and Marathe to clear out of his way, let him pick his own GM (likely ESPN’s Louis Riddick), and guarantee him a commitment level that allayed general concerns about the Yorks’ impulsive, short-sighted, leak-prone, race-to-2-wins ways. If the 49ers had the wherewithal to meet those demands, they’d be worth McDaniels uprooting his young family and taking a shot with this talent-depleted roster.
And I am guessing that, once they heard what McDaniels was telling them, York and Marathe were not pleased–because one thing we know about the Yorks is that they love to be praised and flattered, not challenged.
But now that Tom Cable has also dropped out (thank the Lord), Kyle Shanahan should have even more leverage than Josh McDaniels did. He should be able to name his price -- not so much in terms of $s (although I'm sure he'll be offered that too) but in the words of Kawakami, the power to "pick his own GM... and guarantee him a commitment level that allayed general concerns about the Yorks’ impulsive, short-sighted, leak-prone, race-to-2-wins ways." Or as ESPN's Nick Wagoner put it ("To land Kyle Shanahan, 49ers must be willing to give"):
It was already pretty much a given that York and the Niners would have to concede a lucrative, long-term contract to whoever they hire as head coach. No strong candidate would walk into this situation after the events of the past few years without plenty of built-in security. Likewise, there are some concessions the Niners might have to make in terms of personnel control, or at least in terms of making sure Shanahan has a general manager he feels comfortable with.
But what happens if Shanahan says no?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Can Jed York Do Anything More to Alienate Fans?

Jed York is quickly becoming the least-liked owner in the NFL (Note: Technically, Jed doesn't own the 49ers; his parents do). He alienated the 49er fan base by first firing Jim Harbaugh and then hiring and firing two more head coaches, assuming that they were the problem rather than himself. He did make a move in the right direction by finally dispatching GM Trent Baalke, but until Jed admits that he knows less about football than he thinks he does, it could be a long time before the Niners return to the Super Bowl.

Off the field Jed has probably proved to be more of a disaster. It all started out well with the construction of Levi's Stadium, which opened in 2014. However, the team wanted to take over the soccer fields next to the stadium for parking, and in 2012 York wrote a letter in which he proposed to “underwrite’’ new fields on the grounds of Santa Clara schools. Most people interpreted the letter to meant that the team would build and maintain several new fields. Jed had a different interpretation. Then in February of 2016 the Niners cancelled a girl scout sleepover because they booked a lucrative concert -- sense ultimately prevailed, the Niners managed to reschedule the sleepover, but the damage to public relations was done. Since then the City of Santa Clara has audited the Niners books, which led to a letter from the City Council accusing the them of potential breaches of contract. And then last Fall a mysterious "BLUPAC" sponsored attack ads against allies of the city's mayor, and now (just this past week), the Niners have sued the city for accusing them of breach of contract. Considering that the contract between the Niners and the City of Santa Clara has another 37 years to go, this is not a good start.

It's hard to imagine how Jed will restore the Niner image with both the fan base and the surrounding community. He (and his parents) appear to be more interested in making money than fielding a winning team or being a good corporate citizen. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the Yorks will sell the team. The Niners do turn a profit. But that doesn't mean we Niner fans can't hope. It's going to be on my next year's grown-up Christmas list.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Possessive Singular

What do Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones's Baby have in common, aside from sharing the same central character? Both movie titles form the possessive singular by adding 's' to 'Jones,' even though 'Jones' ends in 's.' As Strunk and White note in, The Elements of Style (p. 1), we should follow this rule "whatever the final consonant. Thus [we should] write,
Charles's friend
Burns's poem
the witch's malice"
Are Strunk and White alone? 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:
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 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

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

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.

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

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

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
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 

There are plenty of more examples, but surely this should suffice.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Can The Niners Send a Signal That Things Will Be Different?

Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group
In economics, signaling refers to the concept that one party credibly conveys some information about itself to another party. It is a method of overcoming the problem of asymmetric information, which is where one party has information the other party does not. For example, potential employees can send a signal about their ability level to various employers by acquiring the appropriate education credentials (e.g., BS, MBA, PhD). Employers can also send signals about the desirability of a place to work. This becomes especially important when they are competing with other firms for high end talent (e.g., high tech firms competing with one another for top engineers and computer scientists).

The San Francisco 49ers have a signaling problem. Two years ago, after Niner CEO Jed York fired head coach Jim Harbaugh and kept GM Trent Baalke the 49ers inadvertently signaled to the rest of the league that San Francisco was no longer desirable place to work or play, as evidenced by the mass exodus of players who left for other teams or decided to retire. And therein lies the Niners problem going forward as they seek to hire a new GM and a new head coach. Who will want to work for the Niners when there are other teams that are more desirable and far less dysfunctional? As columnist Ray Ratto puts it ("York Has His Work Cut Out For Him in Replacing Kelly, Baalke"):
You see, while most folks will be focusing on the identities of the next GM and coach (or coach and GM, if Jed decides to work backwards), the atmosphere is what needs the biggest workover. There is no compelling reason for excitement around either of these vacancies, no more than for the Chargers’ coaching job (Mike McCoy got canned after losing to the Chiefs), the Rams’ coaching job (Jeff Fisher was canned nine days after being extended), the Jaguars’ coaching job (Gus Bradley got it on a plane ride home), the Bills’ coaching job (Rex Ryan cleared space for Anthony Lynn to lose his first game), the Broncos’ coaching job (Gary Kubiak announced he is stepping down), or possibilities in Arizona, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and New Orleans. And yes, it figures that the 49ers would be looking for a new coach when the market is replete with more stable offerings. 
Jed is good at several things – making a stadium turn into an ATM machine, avoiding the public, firing people and paying coaches not to work for him. Other than the money thing, none of these are useful social skills or confidence-builders. 
And that is what he needs most right now – a way to indicate not just to unhappy fans but to the hiring pool that he actually does have a grasp on this football business, even if his grasp is to let go of it and hand it to someone who can repair what he has wrought. The “it’s one of 32 jobs so anyone would be desperate to have it” logic doesn’t work when the brand has been so comprehensively devalued.
In short, the Niners need to send a signal that San Francisco will once again be a desirable destination in the NFL. Doing so won't be easy. In fact, the way York handled the dismissals of Baalke and Kelly (i.e., leaks to the media, not telling Kelly personally, etc.) wasn't a good start. As Tim Kawakami noted last night and this morning:
But once again, the Yorks muffed the delivery by leaking the firings on Saturday night without first telling Kelly, then declining to formally give him word until after Sunday’s loss to Seattle at Levi’s, which gave the 49ers a 2-14 final record. How can the Yorks make all the necessary, wholesale changes to this stultified franchise if they continue to try to play these heavy-handed public-relation games? How is this team going to be any different if their owners continue to act like children? ("A Bungled Start to the 49ers’ New Era")
As we all get ready for Jed York’s 10 a.m. third annual I-fired-somebody-we’ll-get-it-right-this-time presser today, it’s time to note that the 49ers might actually get it right in 2017, but their owner’s actions so far are not quite signaling that. Basically: Some good general manager and coaching candidates are going to look at Jed’s petty behavior in the run-up to the firings of Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly and his self-serving comments afterwards and think: You know, he’s just going to blame me for his mistakes eventually. ("Jed York... continues to behave like somebody who thinks he has it all figured out, but really, really doesn’t")
The Niners remind me of the Golden State Warriors when Chris Cohan owned the team. The franchise made a lot of money during his tenure, but the Warriors only had two winning seasons in the 15 that Cohan owned the team. And Sports Illustrated ranked him as the league's fourth worst owner. I'm sure that if Sports Illustrated decides to rank football owners, Jed would end up toward the bottom (Note: Yahoo Sports Columnist Frank Schwab believes the Niners' vacancy is the least attractive of those available).

The only cure for the Warriors was Cohan selling the team, but (unfortunately) the chance that the Yorks will sell the Niners is close to nil, so Niner fans can only hope that Jed will one day realize that, like his uncle, Eddie Debartolo, he doesn't know a whole lot about football and will hand over the reigns of running the club to a GM who does. I have little confidence that such a day is nigh, however. Hopefully, I am wrong.