Tuesday, June 30, 2015

G.O.P. SCOTUS Fallout

It will be interesting to see how the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding Obamacare and same-sex marriage will impact the upcoming race for the Republican nomination. In terms of the broader public, both universal health care and same-sex marriage are receding in importance, so the Republican party would be smart to nominate someone like Jeb Bush or Mario Rubio who, although personally opposing same-sex marriage, are less likely to make it a centerpiece of their campaign. Bush, for example, remarked that “good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side” and Rubio said that although he disagreed with the decision, he recognized that the country had to “abide by the law.”

These sentiments contrast markedly from those of Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and others. For instance, Cruz, reflecting on the dual Supreme Court decisions, remarked that "today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history" (evidently the massacre at a South Carolina church a week before wasn't quite as bad -- of course, this is a guy who made fun of Joe Biden shortly after Biden's son died) and said that he was going to propose "an amendment to the United States Constitution that would subject the justices of the Supreme Court to periodic judicial-retention elections." At least Cruz realized this was the only constitutional means of being able to recall Supreme Court justices, unlike Sarah Palin who called for their impeachment, something that is uncontrovertibly unconstitutional.

How this will all shake out is hard to tell at this point. It's a long time between now and the race for the nomination. My guess is that the Republican party will nominate Bush, Rubio, or someone like them. This is certainly the hope of the somewhat conservative columnist from the Washington Times, Joseph Curl, who took the more conservative candidates to task:
In the end, each and every one of these Republicans will be deemed to have been on the wrong side of history. Of course they’re wrong. Marriage in a church — in the eyes of God — is a completely different matter. Religions will decide who they will marry (and nearly all, at this point, anyway, do not wed same-sex couples). The ruling means only that gays can get a “marriage” license from the government, receive the same Social Security benefits as heterosexuals, file taxes jointly, visit a loved one in the hospital during “family only” hours, and have parental rights over children they adopt (so, the ruling wasn’t anti-family, either). 
But that’s not the worst part for Republicans hoping to win the White House. They lost in 2012 (in part) because President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage (which he said he opposed in 2008). Still, that didn’t decide the election — gays make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. But what Mr. Obama was going for was the youth vote — many people 18-25 view themselves as more tolerant and progressive, and the president’s change of mind brought them to the polls in droves. 
The worst part for Republicans is that same-sex marriage is the very definition of conservatism, at least in this single way: Conservatives decry government intrusion into the lives of Americans, and what could be more intrusive than the government setting boundaries on — love? 
And once again, Republicans look Neanderthal: They can’t answer questions on whether evolution is real, they argue against vaccinations, they call for government to intervene in the personal lives of Americans. 
This, people, is how you lose another presidential election.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Good Spy: Robert Ames and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

History can be boring. Chronological accounts of past events written in uninspiring prose will often put one to sleep. That is why I (and I suspect many others) often prefer learning about history by reading biographies. For example, I often learned more about the history of Judaism and early Christianity by reading "Who's Who in the Bible" type books rather than by reading introductions to the Old and New Testaments (although the latter are quite helpful in separating fact from fiction).

Thus, it didn't come as too much of a surprise that I learned a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Kai Bird's, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, a book about the CIA's Near East Director, who was killed in 1983 in the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Bird is an exceptional story teller; he co-author Martin J. Sherwin won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Here is an excerpt from Amazon's review of The Good Spy:
On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – CIA operative Robert Ames. What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”). Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace. Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust. 
What emerges is a masterpiece-level narrative of the making of a CIA officer, a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East, and an absorbing hour-by-hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing. Even more impressive, Bird draws on his reporter’s skills to deliver a full dossier on the bombers and expose the shocking truth of where the attack’s mastermind resides today.
It is well-worth your time to pick up this book. Not only will you learn about a remarkable CIA operative, but you'll gain a greater understanding of what lies behind much of the turmoil in today's Middle East. It will also make you wonder if things would be different if Ames had lived.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

California Drivers: Predictably Irrational

In his book, Predictably Irrational, MIT Professor Dan Ariely, drawing on 20 years of research, demonstrates how people tend to behave irrationally in a very predictable fashion. Take, for example, the following advertisement that appeared in the web site of the Economist magazine that Ariely ran across:

Ariely wondered who would buy the print option alone when both the Internet and the print subscriptions were offered for the same price (this is worth reading -- in fact, the entire book is):
Now, the print-only option may have been a typographical error, but I suspect that the clever people at the Economist’s London offices (and they are clever— and quite mischievous in a British sort of way) were actually manipulating me. I am pretty certain that they wanted me to skip the Internet-only option (which they assumed would be my choice, since I was reading the advertisement on the Web) and jump to the more expensive option: Internet and print. 
But how could they manipulate me? I suspect it’s because the Economist’s marketing wizards (and I could just picture them in their school ties and blazers) knew something important about human behavior: humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six-cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four-cylinder model.) 
In the case of the Economist, I may not have known whether the Internet-only subscription at $59 was a better deal than the print-only option at $125. But I certainly knew that the print-and-Internet option for $ 125 was better than the print-only option at $125. In fact, you could reasonably deduce that in the combination package, the Internet subscription is free! “It’s a bloody steal—go for it, governor!” I could almost hear them shout from the riverbanks of the Thames. And I have to admit, if I had been inclined to subscribe I probably would have taken the package deal myself. (Later, when I tested the offer on a large number of participants, the vast majority preferred the Internet-and-print deal.)
Why are we so predictably irrational? Often, it's because most of us don’t know what we want until we see it in comparison to available alternatives (this is sometimes called "anchoring"):
The geniuses at the Economist aren’t the only ones who understand the importance of relativity. Take Sam, the television salesman. He plays the same general type of trick on us when he decides which televisions to put together on display: 36-inch Panasonic for $690, 42-inch Toshiba for $850, 50-inch Philips for $1,480. Which one would you choose? In this case, Sam knows that customers find it difficult to compute the value of different options. (Who really knows if the Panasonic at $690 is a better deal than the Philips at $1,480?) But Sam also knows that given three choices, most people will take the middle choice (as in landing your plane between the runway lights). So guess which television Sam prices as the middle option? That’s right— the one he wants to sell!
Of course, comparison is not the only reason why we sometimes behave irrationally. In fact, cognitive psychologists and behavioral economists have found that there are a series of heuristics (i.e., rules of thumb, strategies) that guide the choices we make. Another one is called the "availability" heuristic, which is the tendency to make judgements about the frequency of an event based on how easy it is to recall similar instances. As Steven Pinker notes people overestimate the probability of the types of accidents that typically garner headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings but underestimate the likelihood of events that don't such as drownings, falls, and electrocutions (Pinker, "The Better Angels Of Our Nature"). And as I've noted before ("Wine, Wars (and Rumors of Wars), and Why (Unlike Indiana Jones) We Often Choose Unwisely"), this helps explain why most people think that Roman Catholic priests have sexually abused minors at a greater rate than male Protestant pastors when, in fact, they haven't.

Another heuristic, called "priming," refers to the tendency of our actions to be affected by prior cues. I think this helps explain much of the predictably irrational behavior many of us witness on California's highways. To wit:
  1. Drivers who won't use the passing lane during non-commute hours. Many of us get so used to not driving in the passing lane that we never use it (priming). So, we either sit impatiently in the middle lane (on a three lane freeway) behind a road boulder driving 10mph below the speed limit or pass them to the right.
  2. Closely related to this are drivers who don't drive in the diamond lane during commute time, but weave in and out of the other two or three lanes at 80-90mph in order to get ahead. Do they really think the highway patrol is less likely to notice their reckless driving than if they were driving the speed limit in the diamond lane?
  3. Also related to this are people who think the diamond lane is always in effect (to be sure, it often is in LA, but in the rest of the state it usually isn't), and then plop themselves in the diamond lane when it isn't in effect and drive 45.
  4. Then there are those of us who speed up as others attempt to pass (comparison). Most of us do this (usually unconsciously) when we drive and are not using cruise control.
  5. How about those of us who get upset when single drivers use the diamond lane (comparison), but we don't get upset when cars with two or more people don't use the diamond lane. If you think about it, it's the latter who slow the rest of us (i.e., those who aren't legally allowed to use the commute lane) down, not the former.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry

We were fortunate in a lot of ways this year. Maybe number one was health. And to win a title there's obviously a lot of work, but a lot of luck as well, and we had a lot of luck on our side this year. And our guys took advantage of it, and they were fantastic. But, man, what a night.
-- Steve Kerr

This was a team that was too smart, too talented and too together to lose.
-- Ricky O'Donnell, SB Nation1

The Warriors are really, really good. You have a shot at beating them if their shooting goes ice-cold. Otherwise, it’s next to impossible.
-- Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight2

Some have been eager to point out that the Golden State Warriors were extremely lucky in their run to the NBA title. And they were. They suffered few injuries during the regular season, and an injury to one player (David Lee) helped boost the career of another (Harrison Barnes). And when Klay Thompson's suffered a concussion in the last game of the Western Conference finals, he had eight days to recover before the NBA finals began. And then there are the teams the Warriors didn't have to play that some think would've given them the most trouble: The San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers eliminated the Spurs in the first round, and then the Clippers were eliminated by the Houston Rockets in the second. Finally, the Warriors opponent in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, lost two of its key players during the playoffs: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.  Love's collarbone was broken in the first game of the Cavaliers first round playoff series with the Boston Celtics, and Irving battled tendinitis in his knee late in the season and throughout the playoffs until he fractured his knee cap in the first game of the NBA finals.

So, yes, the Warriors were lucky, but most championship teams are (although most are loathe to admit it). Seldom does an injury-riddled team win the World Series, Stanley Cup, Super Bowl, or World Cup. Sometimes teams both benefit from and then are punished by luck. Take last year's Seattle Seahawks, for example. They benefitted tremendously when Arizona Cardinal's quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending knee injury. If he had stayed healthy, it is likely that the Cardinals, and not the Seahawks, would've won their division, and the Seahawks would have played all their playoff games on the road. And while they're nearly unbeatable at home, the Seahawks are "merely" very good on the road. But the Seahawks luck changed in the Super Bowl. Early in the game they lost Jeremy Lane to an injury, and one could argue that proved to be a key difference in a game that the Seahawks barely lost.

(It's worth mentioning that the Warriors haven't always been so lucky. Two years ago they played without the services of David Lee in the playoffs against the Spurs, a series they almost won. And in last year's playoffs, they didn't have a center when they played the Clippers. Funny, though, I don't remember anyone claiming that either the Spurs or the Clippers were lucky because they played against and beat a depleted Warriors team.)

Not all of the Warriors luck can be passed off as dumb luck, however. The Warriors were well aware of the toll that an NBA season can take on players, so they rested their players whenever possible. For instance, the rested Steph Curry for 20 fourth quarters when he could've played and increased his stats. And it worked. The Warriors lost only 1,252 minutes to injury this season, which was the lowest total in the NBA. Moreover, as Tom Haberstroh from ESPN notes ("Biggest winner of the Finals? Rest!"), this was the team's plan from the beginning, which is why they adopted cutting edge approaches to lower injuries:
It's no coincidence that the Warriors were the healthiest team... Golden State holds a competitive advantage. Its secret? The Warriors are based in the Bay Area, the same place that Silicon Valley calls home... Technology and data analysis are pillars of the Warriors' front office, which makes it a point to combine the numbers and hoops... The Warriors are as nerdy as it gets. As clients of wearable technology provider Catapult Sports, they monitor their players' workloads in practice with GPS monitors and analyze the data with acute attention to maximizing performance while minimizing injury risk. 
The latest project: Led by the training staff, Gelfand and the team's data programmers, the Warriors have engineered a readiness rating for each player built on a 0-to-100 scale (100 is prime shape and 0 is burnt out). The idea is to give Kerr a handy all-in-one metric that aggregates various health indicators
Of course, the reason why the Warriors were able to rest their starters during the regular season was because they have so much talent. That is why back in October, FiveThirtyEight ("2014 NBA Preview: The Rise Of The Warriors") picked the Warriors as its preseason favorite to win it all. In other words, it wasn't an accident they won 67 games during the regular season (which is tied for the 6th-most in NBA history). More impressively, the Warriors
schedule-adjusted points-per-game margin (as measured by Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, also known as SRS) ranked seventh all-time. The team became just the fourth in NBA history to outperform the league average by 6 points of efficiency on one side of the ball — in the Warriors’ case, offense — and by 4 points on the other. Moreover, the team’s Elo rating at the end of the regular season was second only to that of the record-setting 1996 Bulls.3
With such a successful regular season, it should not have surprised anyone that they ended up winning it all (although traditionalists don't like how much they shot so many 3-pointers). In fact, "since 1984, nine other top seeds have finished within two games of the Warriors’ regular-season win total (somewhere between 65 and 69 wins). Those teams went 7 for 9 in winning titles."4

But talent and luck were not the only things going for the Warriors. There was also their team chemistry, their camaraderie. Not all championship teams have it. The "Fighting A's," who won three consecutive World Series in the early 70's, were known more for their locker room brawls than for singing Kumbaya around the campfire. But when teams have it, it can help, and that was certainly the case with the Warriors this season ("Rewind: Warriors capitalize on 'lot of luck' en route to title"):
The defining characteristic of these Warriors, though, is a selfless camaraderie that runs the entire spectrum of the roster. They don’t all laugh at the same things, but they laughed together. They don’t all think alike, but they all saw the same big picture, one in which a championship was possible as long as team goals trumped everything else.
In short, the Warriors are no different from most professional teams that have won championships. They won because they had a lot of talent, team chemistry, and a little bit of luck on their way to the championship.
1. Ricky O'Donnell, "Steve Kerr's Real Genius Was Letting the Warriors Have Fun"
2. Nate Silver, "Why The Warriors Are So Tough to Beat"
3. Neil Pane, "The Year of the Warriors"
4. Nate Silver, "Is Vegas Underrating The Warriors?"

Saturday, June 13, 2015

It's Time to Get Over Deflategate

So I lied. Sorry. But I don't think they hand you the trophy based on morality. They give it to you if you win. So, sorry about that.
-- Steve Kerr

Everybody is trying to do something different. Our offensive linemen used to spray silicone on their shirts until they got caught. Once you get caught, you get caught. Period.
-- Joe Montana

If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying hard enough.
-- Mark Grace

Sometimes, in the games during all my championship runs, if a ball was too hard, I let air out. I’d have a needle. A friend of mine would have a needle and I would get the game ball… I needed that extra grip, but I wasn’t doing that for cheating purposes. I just needed the extra grip for my hands so I could palm it, a la Michael Jordan, the way he used to palm it.
-- Shaquille O'Neal

Two things used to bother me about the the criticism directed at Barry Bonds and steroids. One was the implication that he was one of the few who used them. We eventually learned that was not true: Jose Canseco estimated that 1/2 of professional baseball players used steroids, and Eric Gagne wrote that 80% of the Los Angeles Dodgers took them when he was on the team. The second was the self-righteousness displayed by some former players and the media who acted as if ballplayers using steroids was the first time anyone had ever cheated in baseball. However, anyone who has been around baseball or any other professional sports for any length of time knows that players and the teams they play for cheat all the time ("What Are the Rules About Breaking the Rules?"). Most of the time, though, they simply don't get caught.

That's why I think the reaction of most people to Deflategate is overinflated (sorry, couldn't resist the pun). It may come as a shock, but the Patriots are not the only professional team that cheats. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that almost every every team does, including (fill in the name of your favorite professional team here ________). This isn't to suggest that the Patriots shouldn't be punished if they did indeed cheat (although an article yesterday in the NY Times called into question -- see "Deflating 'Deflategate'"). That's part of the deal. If you cheat and get caught, you pay the consequences. However, let's not pretend that the Patriots are more morally challenged than are other teams. They're not, including (fill in the name of your favorite professional team here ________). If there is one thing that separates the Patriots from the rest of the league (aside from consistently winning), it may be that they have a knack for getting caught.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Back to the Future? Will the Cubbies Win the World Series in 2015?

The Back to the Future movies made a number of predictions about the future, and some have come true. What has (some) Cub fans holding their breath, though, is the prediction in Back to the Future II that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015 (see the clip below).

We already know that part of the prediction won't come true because the Cubs won't be playing the Miami Marlins if they make it to the fall classic since both teams are in the National League (although it is impressive that the movie predicted the existence of a Miami team 4 years before the Marlins played their first game -- and they were called the Florida Marlins until 2011). Still, I'm hoping the prediction comes true (unless the Cubbies play the Giants along the way, of course).

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Benedict Option?

In my previous post, I speculated that with the rift between fiscal and religious conservatives was widening, American politics could be in for a change. One possible change is what is called, "The Benedict Option," a term first coined (I believe) by Rob Dreher ("Becoming Barbarians") and takes as its inspiration the closing paragraphs of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” MacIntyre 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.” He contends that the preservation of today's civilization depends upon the emergence of “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” who can begin the same sorts of local communities that sustained civilization and moral life through the Dark Ages.

Put simply, the Benedict Option would entail something of a withdrawal by religious conservatives from the political sphere, but it wouldn't entail complete political quietism. They would still voice their opinion on public issues, but they would no longer seek to play key roles in presidential politics. In an article published in the February issue of First Things, Dreher describes the Benedict Option (or BenOp) as “a radical shift in perspective among Christians, one in which we see ourselves as living in ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization,” with the coming task of keeping “orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture.” It would involve an emphasis on education and culture but not require a withdrawal from political life. It would be “primarily a theological and cultural project” based on radically rethinking “our place within this order.”

At this point, it's difficult to know how wide-spread the Benedict Option is or if things are as dire for conservative Christians as folks like Dreher believe it to be. There are quite a few liberals who believe just the opposite: namely, that conservative Christians are on the verge of taking over America.

Regardless, I'm sure that secularists would be thrilled if religious conservatives took a step back from the political sphere, but they'd be mistaken to equate such a move as the defeat for religious belief and practice. If social scientists such as Robert Putnam, David Campbell, Michael Hout, and Claude Fischer are correct that the rise of the religious nones (or unchurched believers as Hout and Fischer put it) is, in part, a backlash to the political alignment of religious and political conservatives in the 1960s and 70s, then the dissolution of that marriage could eventually lead to a decline in those who believe without belonging. We'll see.

For more on movement, here are a few links to some helpful on-line articles (which, of course, include additional links):

Saving the ‘Benedict Option’ from Culture War Conservatism
Note: As with the previous post this was brought to my attention in the June 2015 issue of Religion Watch, which requires a subscription to access.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Are Fiscal and Religious Conservatives Divorcing?

Recently, I wrote about the gap between libertarians and religious conservatives in the Republican Party ("The Koch Brothers and the Future of the Republican Party"). I noted that while religious conservatives, for the most part, remain opposed to same-sex marriage, libertarians do not. In fact, earlier this Spring David Koch and 378 other businesses and business leaders added their name to an amicus brief that urges the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage.

More recently, writing in The New Republic (May 14th) Elizabeth Bruenig notes that Mike Huckabee’s opposition to overhauling social security and other criticisms of big business has turned many conservative leaders and media against his campaign. “What the conservative media machine’s destruction of Huckabee demonstrates is that the free market, anti-egalitarian wing of the GOP establishment has less patience for the Christian wing than it used to.” Similarly, the sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, reflecting on the battle over Indiana's religious freedom rights act (RFRA)  ("Virtue and Vice in Indiana"), notes that "something was new at the skirmish between virtue and vice in Walkerton, Indiana: The participation of important elements of the business community in the pro-gay campaign."
The cultural elite and the business elite are in process of merging. It is probably misleading to think of this in terms of “co-optation”—if anything, the two cultures are co-opting each other. Looked at from the viewpoints of progressive and conservative ideologues, one or the other co-optation can be viewed as “corruption”: The cultural elite (a.k.a. intelligentsia) has been “corrupted” by giving up its socialist ideals, thinking of itself as a hereditary aristocracy entitled to rule (like all aristocrats they seek to pass their privileges on to their children), and accepting greed and snobbery as acceptable personal values. Conversely, the business elite has been “corrupted” by opening itself up to previously excluded ethnic and racial groups, combining its old Protestant work ethic with a very un-Protestant liberality in all matters south of the navel.
As I noted in my earlier post, this trend could have some interesting implications for American politics. If fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party emerge victorious, where will the religious conservatives go? We may return to a time when religious belief and practice (or the lack thereof) are not as closely aligned with political parties as they are today. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell note (American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us) this was the situation in America prior to the 1960s and 70s. Such a return may not be a bad thing.

Note: Much of what appears above was brought to my attention in the June 2015 issue of Religion Watch, which requires a subscription to access.