Monday, August 30, 2010

Cheating and Sports, Part I: What are the Rules about Breaking the Rules?

Seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens was recently indicted by a grand jury for lying under oath to Congress about whether he used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. Seven-time Most Valuable Player Award winner Barry Bonds is coming up for trial next March on similar charges. And seven-time (what is it about seven?) Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is in danger of following in Clemens's and Bonds's footsteps.

They, of course, are not alone. Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Eric Gagne, Andy Pettitte, Mark McGuire, Floyd Landis, Dana Stubblefield, Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez have all been tied to the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. And steroids are not the first drug that athletes have turned to in order to boost their performance. At least since the 1960s professional baseball players have taken "greenies" (amphetamines) for a little pick-me-up before the game when the drug used by most Americans (i.e., coffee) wasn't enough. Alcohol is also used widely by professional athletes as a means for taking the edge off the incredible pressure they face day in and day out (most of us don't have 50,000 fans watching us while we work!). (Note: Heavy drinking after games is often why greenies are needed before games.)

What I'm curious about is why are certain forms of cheating in sports okay while others are not?  That's right. Cheating has been a constant in sports from its inception, and some kinds appear to be tolerated as long as one doesn't get caught. Take for instance the case of
Gaylord Perry, who regularly threw a "spitter," an illegal pitch, but that didn't stop him from being voted into the Hall of Fame by sportswriters who should have been very well aware that Perry cheated since Perry's autobiography, entitled "Me and the Spitter" was published in 1974, and he wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1991!

And as Ross Douthat recently noted in a column for the New York Times, NY Giant Bobby Thomson's miracle home run ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World") against the Dodgers may have had a little illegal help. According to Joshua Prager’s book on the 1951 pennant race, "The Echoing Green," the Giants manager, Leo Durocher, devised a sign-stealing system, using a telescopic lens located in center field, that the Giants used over the last 10 weeks of the season, during which time the Giants made up an amazing 13 games on the Dodgers, a chase that culminated with Thompson's home run, a home run that sent the Giants to the World Series and the Dodgers home for the winter. But the type of cheating associated Perry and the Giants doesn't seem to bother too many people.

Why? I'm not sure. But I am curious. To paraphrase Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter, I want to know "what the rules are about breaking the rules." To quote Carter from his book "Integrity":
A couple of years ago as I sat watching a televised football game... I was struck by an event I had often noticed but on which I had never reflected. A player who failed to catch a ball thrown his way hit the ground, rolled over, and then jumped up, celebrating as though he had caught the pass after all.  The referee was standing in a position that did not give him a good view of what had happened, was fooled by the player's pretense, and so moved the ball down the field... But viewers at home... saw what the referee missed: the ball lying on the ground instead of snug in the receiver's hands. The only comment from the broadcasters: "What a heads-up play!" Meaning: "Wow, what a great liar this kid is! Well done!
Let's be very clear: that is exactly what they meant. The player set out to mislead the referee and succeeded; he helped his team to obtain an advantage in the game that it had not earned. It could not have been accidental. He knew he did not catch the ball. By jumping up and celebrating, he was trying to convey a false impression. He was trying to convince the officials that he had caught the ball. And the officials believed him.  So, in any ordinary understanding of the word, he lied...
When I began working on this book, I shared the story about the cheating football player with a few of my colleagues over lunch... They offered a bewildering array of fascinating and sophisticated arguments on why the receiver who pretended to catch the ball was doing nothing wrong. One in particular stuck in my mind. "You don't know if he was breaking the rules," of the best and brightest of my colleagues explained, "until you know what the rules are about following the rules." 
I don't know what the rules are about following the rules, and I suspect that most athletes (except, perhaps, golfers) know what they are either. That is why I think that before we nail Clemens, Bonds, possibly Armstrong, Rodriguez and others to a tree, we probably should consider that the fuzzy line between permissible and impermissible cheating helped contribute to the rise of the steroid era.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Morality vs. Constitutionality

In listening to the debates surrounding Proposition 8 in California and the building of the mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero in New York, there seems to be an implicit assumption among folks on both sides of the debate that the Constitutionality of their perspective happens to line up quite nicely with their view of what is right and just and good.

However, this is simply not the case. Just because something is deemed to be permitted by the US Constitution doesn't mean that it is morally right. Similarly, just because something is "obviously" just, doesn't mean that it is Constitutional.  In this respect I think it is helpful to recall that slavery was Constitutional prior to the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top 10 Things Parents Never Say to Their 16 Year-Old

For our son's 16th birthday my wife (Deanne) found a birthday card (made by Carlton Cards, Cleveland, Ohio) that listed the top 10 things you'll never hear parents say to their 16 year old:

10. "We're going away for the weekend. You might want to plan a party."
9. "That TV isn't going to watch itself!"
8. "Well, just do whatever all the other kids are doing."
7. "Here's a great idea! Let's go get matching tattoos!!"
6. "As long as you're living under our roof, YOU make the rules!"
5. "Oh, like school's so important. Come on, let's go the mall today, instead."
4. "Why are you spending som much time cleaning your room? You're neglecting your video games!"
3. "Turn that music up!"
2. "Stay out as late as you like, Sweetie. And, please don't call to let us know where you are."
1. "Don't bother going to college and having a successful career. We're going to support you for the rest of your life!"

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Midterm Election Predictions

I often make predictions concerning the upcoming elections, so I thought I better get around to doing it before the outcome becomes obvious:

With regards to the midterm elections, I think there is little doubt that the Democrats will lose seats in both the Senate and the House; the party in control of the White House almost always does.  The bigger question, however, is whether the Democrats will lose control of one or both houses.  My sense is that unless things change dramatically between now and November, the Democrats will lose control of the House, but they will hang on to the Senate although just barely.

While Democrats will undoubtedly lament losing (and Republicans will undoubtedly celebrate gaining) control of one or both chambers, a divided government will probably boost Obama's reelection chances in 2012 because the government will most likely be more efficient (e.g., less likely to engage in pork-barrel spending), the stock market will probably rise, and Americans, for whatever reason, seem to prefer presidents who battle with an intransigent congress in order to get things done.  

As to the first point divided government is often the best brake on out-of-control spending. As Stephen Silvinski of the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, pointed out, government spending is much lower when neither party controls both the legislative and executive branches of government.  To quote just a portion of his article:
Since 1965, government has grown slower in periods of divided government than in periods of united government. On average, united government tends to lead to a 3.4% annual increase in federal spending in real per capita terms—over double the growth under divided government: 1.5%.
When you look at the data in terms of how fast government grew in relation to the economy, the results still favor divided government. The average yearly increase in government above and beyond GDP growth is 25 times faster when one party has a monopoly over both the legislative and executive branches than it does when gridlock is present.
This was exemplified by the Bush administration. For all his rhetoric about small government, in the first few years under George Bush, federal spending increased not just on defense but on education and other social services at a far greater rate than it did under Bill Clinton (see Micklethwait & Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, p. 140). Thus, while President Obama may lament his lack of ability to spend what he wants when he wants (not that he really could in his first two years), a more efficient government should benefit him in the long run.

A rise in the stock market would probably benefit President Obama as well. While I personally think that the market will rise between now and 2012 regardless of whether Republicans win the House or not, the market will probably rise higher and at a quicker rate if the Republicans do (I heard one stock market sage--I can't remember who--remark that the market will rise immediately if the Republicans won the House in November). And, of course, a rise in the stock market tends to lead to increases in consumer confidence, which in turn benefits the economy, and sitting presidents almost always get reelected when the economy is humming along.

Americans' preference for embattled presidents probably has its roots in our love of underdogs. It also helps to have another party that you can blame for the Country's troubles.  either way, having to go toe-to-toe with a Republican-controlled House will probably do Obama good.  As Gene Healy (also from the Cato Institute) notes:
Ironically enough... the embattled Obama might have a better shot at a successful presidency. Divided government tends to boost the president's approval rating.
It's no accident that the few modern presidents who left office with high popularity — Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton — had to battle a Congress controlled by the opposition. We tend to like the guy better when he doesn't have a free hand.
No doubt Obama's pulling for... a Democratic majority in 2010. But if he knew what was good for him — and for the country — he'd silently root for divided government.
So, will President Obama be reelected in 2012?  Too early to tell at this point (although I think he has a pretty good chance), but if you're interested in the "science" of predicting presidential elections, you may want to check out Ray Fair's book (aptly titled), Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things. He also has a website that he maintains regularly that predicts upcoming elections (right now, he's predicting that the House vote will be close but currently favors the Republicans).

Update:  A good friend of mine who works as an investment banker (and has a pretty good sense of what will happen in the economy) believes that in two years, GDP will be "bumping along" (his words) at 2% and unemployment will be still quite high (8% officially; unofficially much higher). If he is correct, President Obama will have a difficult time getting reelected. Let's hope the GOP nominates someone worthy of being President.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What Do We Mean by Justice?

I want to commend to everyone Michael Sandel's book and companion DVD, "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?". The book is based on his the popular class he teaches at Harvard. Over a 1,000 students fill Harvard's campus theater each time he teaches the class in order to hear him expound on issues such as whether the free market is fair, what constitutes freedom, how individual rights can sometimes conflict with the common good and so on. The DVD is actually a film of him teaching the class in the Fall of 2009 (filmed by the public television affiliate WGBH in Boston) and is quite engaging. He doesn't only lecture. He also throws out questions to the students that often lead to very interesting debates on various issues. Our church (First Congregational Church of San Jose) plans to use the DVD and book later this fall as the basis for a series of adult education forums.

What makes Sandel's class/book so compelling is that he spells out four approaches to the question of justice (Sandel actually says there are three -- however, he groups Libertarian Ethics and Rawls's Liberal Egalitarianism under the heading of "freedom"). Briefly they are as follows:

1) Utilitarian ethics, which is associated with philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argues that when deciding what's the right thing to do, we need to weigh the costs and benefits of various actions, ultimately choosing what is best for the common (greater) good. Put differently, the right thing to do is select the option that provides the greatest utility or pleasure for the greatest number of people. Thus, an action is considered just if it increases happiness and unjust if it causes suffering. A common critique of utilitarianism is that when only the common good is taken into account, individual liberties and rights can be trampled on. For example, while one could make the case that the pleasure that Roman citizens experienced when Christians were tossed to the lions exceeded the pain that the Christians suffered, I think we would be hard-pressed to argue that justice was served.

2) Libertarian ethics, which is associated with Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman, favors free markets and oppose government regulation not, as many assume, in order to promote economic efficiency but in order to promote human freedom. Libertarians argue that each of us has a fundamental right to do whatever we want with the things we own as long as we respect the rights of others to do exactly the same thing. Libertarians tend to favor a minimalist government and oppose what Sandel refers to as (a) paternalistic legislation -- that is, laws that protect people from themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws), (b) moral legislation -- laws that promote virtue or express the moral convictions of the majority (e.g., pro-life anti-gay rights legislation), and (c) legislation that redistributes income and/or wealth (e.g., income taxes used to help the poor in some respect). This perspective is often criticized for ignoring the plight of those who aren't as free to make choices as are those who hold a more privileged place in society.

3) Liberal egalitarian ethics, which has it roots in Immanuel Kant and it most influential modern proponent John Rawls, opposes both utilitarian and libertarian ethics. It argues that people possess certain inalienable rights (hence, the greater good doesn't always trump the interest of individuals) and seeks to locate principles of justice that are independent of all interest-based perspectives (i.e., principles that would be arrived at by rational individuals as long as they set aside their personal moral and religious convictions). In particular, Kant sought a law (what he called "the categorical imperative") that would bind rational individuals together regardless of their particular ends, while Rawls argued that principles of justice are those that all of us would choose if we chose from an original position of equality. According to Rawls, the two most important principles are a) equal basic liberties for all citizens and b) social and economic equality although it doesn't necessarily require the complete redistribution of income and wealth in order for this to be fulfilled. A common critique of this approach is that when it comes to questions of justice, setting aside one's moral and religious convictions isn't always possible, and many question whether or not Rawls (unconsciously) imposed his own belief about what is right and good in arriving at these principles.

4) Teleological ethics, which has it roots in Aristotle but has modern proponents in folks like Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, argues that we cannot know what is just apart from a prior conception of the good life. That is, Rawls's belief that basic principles of justice can be derived through reason independently of some moral community or worldview is misguided. The Aristotelian approach argues that while Rawls's theory of justice is nice in principle, from a practical point of view it is useless because there isn't a "neutral" moral universe "out there" from which rational individuals can derive principles of justice. Instead, all of us, when attempting to arrive at just decisions, draw on some worldview of what the good life entails. The challenge then becomes how we can have a reasoned debate about what constitutes the good life and the principles of justice that stem from it.

Theologians, not surprisingly, can be found arguing out of one or more of these "camps." James Gustafson from University of Chicago articulates something of a Rawlsian position in his attempts to make the Christian ethic "intelligible" to secular academics, while Stanley Hauerwas (interestingly, a former student of Gustafson's) takes more of a Aristotelian perspective in that he argues for a Chrisitan ethic in which Jesus Christ actually matters. Of course, within the Roman Catholic tradition St. Thomas Aquinas drew on Aristotle, and his perspective still dominates official Roman Catholic doctrine. Not bad for a guy who wrote back in the 13th century!

I have certainly not done "justice" to the nuances of these perspectives, and whether you agree with them or not, they all are well-reasoned and all deserve our attention (and reasoned debate). Thus, it will be well worth your while picking up the book or watch the DVD (you can find the episodes on iTunes U too) and see how it informs how your think about justice.