Sunday, February 26, 2017

La Trompette

In summer camp at the mess hall sometimes near the end of the meal the head counselor would lead everyone in song.  He was Italian and he would do this song about musical instruments - some I remember are la violina, la mandolina, and la trompette.  Except, I checked Google Translate and la trompette is French, not Italian.  Weird.

Today for the first time the short rhyme that I post in Twitter and this much longer blog post are linked.  They're both about bits of memory that seem to recur but become altered and perhaps damaged along the way.  Much of this is music, some of it very low brow.

....a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.

Thankfully, Wikipedia let's me know that this show aired mainly while I was in junior high school. The lyrics to the theme song are readily available.  I am deliberately not mentioning the name of the show here to try a little experiment.  People my age, I believe, will be able to identify the show just from the bit above without any further prompt.  In that sense it was ingrained.  We were merely passive receptors in the process.  It's these ingrained memories that seem to emerge in my mind now, but just little snips.

Some years later, college probably, we had National Lampoon and Playboy Magazine available in the dorm.  (I'm pretty sure I never bought either of those, but I did read them.)  Apart from looking at the pictures, I would read the articles in Playboy.  Many of them were about rating performance.  I remember one, in particular, that rated trumpet players, which if I recall had Al Hirt at #1, Louis Armstrong at #2, Doc Severinsen at #3, and Herb Alpert at #4.  Later on, I grew to dislike ratings like this.  What possible purpose did they serve?

Now I know the name Al Hirt, but I don't have an image of him in my head that I can retrieve, nor do I recall any of his music.  Louis Armstrong was as familiar to me for his singing voice as much as for his trumpet playing.  I got to know some of his music much more later in in life.  Doc Severinsen was much more available on the Tonight Show than those other two and in 10th grade when high school was on split session and we were on the late session (school ended around 5:40 PM and didn't start till after 11:30 AM) I became a regular viewer of the Tonight Show and was the last to go to bed in the house. So I certainly have an image of Doc Severinsen in my head as he is playing the trumpet, where he gave a rather dramatic rendering, as well as his leading the band.  But apart from the the theme song of the show, none of his music is familiar to me now.

We had the album Whipped Cream and Other Delights, so among those four I know Herb Alpert best. I think my sister got that album originally, but I would listen to it sometimes without her.  The big hit song was A Taste of Honey, which played on the radio a lot.  This music was present in other forms as well.  One that I can recall now (why I remember, I don't know) is The Dating Game with Jim Lange.  They used a snip from the song Whipped Cream to introduce the guest who would ask the questions and a snip from the song Spanish Flea for when the winner of the date was introduced.  Not too long ago I purchased that album from iTunes.  It still holds up.

Getting back to junior high school, I took band class there.  I remember several of my classmates and the instruments they played.  Eddie played the drums.  Judy and Susan played the flute.  Jack played alto sax while Steve played tenor sax.  I played the clarinet.  Danny played the trumpet.  The thoughts that accompany those memories are more about the positions in which we held our instruments than about the music we played.  The sax was a cool instrument because you held it to one side.  The clarinet was kind of passive (as was the oboe).  The flute was more delicate.  The trumpet was the most aggressive of the wind instruments.  (Drums are in in their own category.  My parents almost certainly wouldn't have allowed drums in the house.)

How did kids get matched to instruments?  That part I don't remember well.  In elementary school I think we each played a tonette, which was inexpensive enough that everyone could have one, but I can't remember what grade that was.  Then there were optional group music lessons after school that I believe cost 50 cents per lesson per kid. I took the flute for a little while, but I was never able to get a good sound out of that, so I got frustrated and wanted to try something else.  I seem to recall the music teacher from the junior high visited our elementary school and he may have recruited us for certain instruments.  (Obviously in a band you need a full complement of instruments, so there must have been some steering of kids to the instruments.)  But I wonder if kids were matched to their instruments by other criteria, perhaps gender, perhaps whether the kid was also athletic, maybe size of the kid too.

Here is Benny Goodman playing the clarinet, in some sense in the manner of playing the trumpet.  He leans back and raises the instrument to near horizontal.  And he closes his eyes so the music seems to be coming from within him.  I recall being taught it was wrong to do that - the holding the instrumental horizontal part.  The emphasis then was on embouchure, to produce a tolerable sound by a novice performer.   For the clarinet, that meant having the instrument in mainly a vertical position.  I suppose Benny Goodman had such could embouchure that he could maintain it regardless of the angle of the clarinet.  Playing the trumpet, in contrast, requires the instrument to be orthogonal to the lips.

I don't know when I first heard The Orchestra Song, interestingly rendered at the link, but I think the clarinet has it over the trumpet there.  It may be the only place where that is true. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Legacy of David Palmer

Searching Amazon Prime for some show to watch last night, I found 24 and watched the first episode of Day (Season) 2.  IMDB reports that the episode first aired on October 29, 2002, and clearly 9/11 had an impact on the story line.  While terrorist threats are part and parcel of each of the seasons of 24 (the hero of the story, Jack Bauer, works for CTU - Counter Terrorist Unit) in Day 1 the terrorists were from Serbia, with hired guns from the U.S.  In Day 2 the terrorists are Islamic, operating with accomplices from the U.S.  

Day 2 also features a returning character from Day 1, David Palmer, who is now President of the United States.  (In Day 1 he was a Senator running for President.)   Palmer is played by Dennis Haysbert.  David Palmer is a good guy, rational and tough, though his character has blind spots about others who are his confidants, some of whom totally betray him.  In a recent post I criticized some more recent TV shows about plots that weren't really tight because they depended on highly intelligent characters making bonehead plays.  Are David Palmer's blind spots more of the same?

I'm not really sure.  I know I got hooked on 24, so if I did find some of this a stretch it didn't bother me much when I viewed it the first time through.  One possible story to explain this lack of perception in people is that they changed due to the pressure they were under.  A second is that major politicians have to cordon off parts of their lives, both personally and professionally, to address the overwhelming demands that are placed on them.  This is enough for me to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Another big deal aspect of the David Palmer character is that he is black. Apparently this is not the first example of a black President in movies or TV.  Morgan Freeman played President Beck in Deep Impact.  But 24 was an incredibly popular TV show and the David Palmer character appears in each of the first four seasons, 81 episodes in total.  Further, David Palmer's brother Wayne subsequently becomes President.  He too is a good guy, though not quite to the standard of his older brother.

On the theme that ideas from TV prepare the audience for the parallel idea in real life, I found the piece linked and excerpted below, where Haysbert ties his role in 24 to the Obama candidacy.  This piece came out in January 2008.  It seems even more plausible now, in light of how Obama's successor got chosen.

The irony, of course, is that 24 appeared on Fox.  The entertainment division and the news division of Fox probably don't communicate much.  I know that I treated 24 like science fiction, but set in the present.  I don't believe it made me any more or less prepared for an Obama candidacy.  The speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention is what made Obama appealing to me as a candidate.  But for those who missed the speech, maybe 24 mattered.

In Days 7 and 8  of 24 the President is a women, played by Cherry Jones.  I guess with popular TV series like 24, it's the first couple of years that really make the impression on the audience. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Gaming It Out - Part 2

On why the Republicans in Congress are not pursuing an investigation agenda into the President's ties to Russia, Paul Krugman in his column today produced this quote:

Well, Senator Rand Paul explained it all: “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.” Does anyone doubt that he was speaking for his whole party?

The thing is, in Congress it is now apparently all facade.   The rules of the Senate require a 60 vote majority to overcome the filibuster.  The Republicans do have a majority, but they are not close to 60 votes, and if the confirmation votes on the Presidential appointments are any indication (those now require only a simple majority given the change in rules instituted when Harry Reid was leading the Democrats) the Republicans might see a couple of defections from their ranks, while the Democrats will hold firm.

Surely Rand Paul knows this.  So he either believes: (a) chest pounding is sufficient and what he and fellow Republicans were meant to do or (b) it is too early to depart from what they said they would do but it may be reasonable to depart from it eventually when it is apparent to all that they can't deliver on their promises.  This leaves also (c) what about the potential liability from not pursuing an investigation agenda if information comes out that the President was part of a conspiracy with the Russians?

It is tempting to consider irrational decision making as a possible explanation, so let's review some alternative possibilities.  (1)  Habit formation.  The Republicans have been the majority in the House since 2011.  They had to face a veto from President Obama that the knew might be coming.  Yet that pursued (a) above throughout this period.  They may have gotten used to "governing" in this manner.  The Senate Republicans have a shorter period where they've been the majority.  They used the filibuster themselves, however, when they were in the minority.  So they should understand that getting things through is extremely difficult now and might find (a) appealing simply for the pr value with their own constituencies.  (2)  The deer in the headlights look.  Shock at the events since the election may not just be with Democratic voters.  If, indeed, this is a real explanation, one wonders when sensibility might return.  (3) Grief.  The first stage, we should recall, is denial.  The question here is: grief about what?  Two candidates are first that the Libertarian strand in the Republican party has died entirely replaced by a populist strand.  Second, on the thought that a house divided cannot stand, the party itself may have died or is in the process of dying.

Some of these explanations offer hope that eventually rationality will return and that (b) remains possible, even if that is not evident now.  We should ask: what will expedite that?

In the previous post, I argued that Republicans might tolerate incompetence in the President if malfeasance can be ruled out.  That is true as long as the incompetence doesn't cut against Republican priorities.  If it did seem damaging, that would be a different matter.  In his column today, David Brooks makes a case for the Bannon-is-in-charge hypothesis.  For the sake of argument, let's say that hypothesis is true.  How do Republicans in Congress view that?  I don't know.  If they are appalled, or become appalled, that would change their approach. 

Does jawboning about a conspiracy with Russia matter here?  Or is that all "cheap talk" and preaching to the choir (meaning it won't move Congressional Republicans)?  There is an Op-Ed in today's NY Times by Evan McMullin, a former C.I.A. officer, who was the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference from January 2015 until August 2016, when he left to run as an independent candidate in the presidential election. You might think the message is credible, given his former position.  But really, there is no news in it for members of Congress.  They made their deal with the devil last summer, having the information in McMullin's piece in hand at the time.  Why would they change now?

Trump supporters, in contrast, didn't have this information.  If they become disillusioned in large numbers, that would be an alternative force that could restore option (b).  In a segment on the Charlie Rose Show earlier in the week about the Flynn resignation, David Ignatius said this investigation will be long and laborious.  The press will stay at it even if Congress does not.  Potentially that could move the segment of public opinion that appears to matter here - Trump supporters.  How long this might take is anyone's guess.

To reiterate the message from the previous post, absent a smoking gun revelation, don't expect dramatic changes to the status quo.  It may not be a situation that we're comfortable with, but we're not in a position to change it.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Gaming It Out

You're all in playing Texas hold 'em.  Your opponent is Johnny Chan.  Your hole cards are a bust.  What are you thinking as your chances for glory seem to be disappearing in the moment?

* * * * *

Like many of my friends I am obsessing about our federal government now and its chaos and dysfunction.  Unlike them, however, I have a rigorous understanding of game theory from the days when I did formal economics.  I am going to try to bring that to bear in this post, absent any jargon that readers might find off putting.

Let me begin with E. J. Dionne's piece today, Admit it: Trump is unfit to serve.  I agree with the analysis there.  If everyone else also agreed, then the puzzle would be why the Republicans in Congress seem to be soft pedaling the issue, hoping the ship might right its course.   In his column yesterday, Greg Sargent mainly argued that Trump now looks like a weak autocrat, but then articulated this alternative:

To be sure, Trump is getting a lot of his Cabinet nominees confirmed. It’s likely that Trump and Republicans will win a lot of victories before long, ones that will be very demoralizing to Democrats. It is also true that the White House has at its disposal a tremendous range of tools to take control of events and news cycles, thus turning things around. So all of this might change soon enough. A doubling-down on Trump’s worst policies, perhaps in the form of a newly implemented and then expanded “Muslim ban,” or in the form of stepped-up deportations, remain real possibilities. A terrorist attack could empower Trump and lead to far worse.

The question is whether the above scenario is realistic, where here realistic means there is a significant likelihood of it coming about.  Black Swans (highly unlikely events) do happen.  Some might say that Trump getting elected was a black swan, especially given how the pollsters didn't forecast it.  Even after experiencing a black swan, however, the laws of probability aren't changed.  A game player choosing a strategy will still make the same sort of calculations on what is the right play.   The hole cards (this is a metaphor for any information that the player knows but nobody else knows) matter.

Understanding this, an outside observer can then try to invert the process - by observing the play the observer makes some inference about what the hole cards are likely to be.  In actual poker bluffing is possible, for this very reason.  But theory says the player must be completely inscrutable, so it is the play only that determines the inference, not some affect in the person that provides an additional clue.  (The movie Rounders refers to that additional clue as the tell.)

In the case at hand, there is really no way that a bluffing approach can work with the Democrats in Congress, the mainstream press, and the various spy agencies.  Republicans in Congress surely understand that.  Given that observation, if you make inferences based on their behavior they must feel it somewhat likely that the damage can be contained.  For them it may be important to distinguish malfeasance, which is impeachable, from mere incompetence, which is not. If the President is guilty of the latter only, they may then be able to wait out the storm.

At issue, then, is what do the spy agencies know that has not yet come out in public and what do members of Congress know about that?  Of course, we don't know that.  What we might conclude, however, is that the information is murky.

The Republicans do have incentive to keep it that way rather than admitting to any smoking gun information that can be verified, because they already have their sights on the 2018 midterm elections.  However, if such information came out anyway, they may then quickly change their approach.

We should observe that Watergate offers an imperfect parallel.  The Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress then, while the President was Republican.  Now they are each Republican and the majority in the House is fairly substantial.

It is surely impossible to query a Republican House member to ask what it would take for them to vote for impeachment.   I won't try to answer that question for them.  I will say, however, that as long as we're not over that bar, the situation will linger pretty much as is.

What should happen and what will happen are two distinct things and we shouldn't confound the one for the other.  So as much as I agree with E.J. Dionne's analysis today, I treat it as normative only, not as predictive.  On the predictive front, the national nightmare will likely be ongoing.

Having it end suddenly would be a black swan.  We can hope for that, but it's not the right way to bet.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Socialism Reconsidered - Part 2

This is the second post in an occasional series.  I should note at the outset that I have Rousseau's The Social Contract on my to do list for reading, but I haven't made much progress in it yet.  In lieu of that, here is the relevant paragraph from near the end of Part 1.

Another point, a bit more indirect, is to ask whether up-scale liberals can get out of the mindset of voting their pocketbook and instead take more of a perspective based on Rawls' Veil of Ignorance when determining what they want economic issue-wise.  I would call this shifting to a Rawlsian perspective being socially responsible.  Socialism, as I meant it in the title of this post, is an approach that takes a shared responsibility for every member of society. 

This is the focus in Part 2.   I view these posts as think alouds, formative thinking where the posing of questions is more important than the delivery of answers, but where information that is relevant is brought in to help bring perspective on the question.  Invariably in doing this, there will be a political dimension to consider.  If you asked which of the major parties might embrace a Veil of Ignorance or Social Contract view, at this point I think it safe to rule out the Republicans.  So the operative question on this is would the Democrats embrace these ideas and, if so, how will that come about?

On Friday, Timothy Egan had a column that speaks to this question.  It is called Democratic Party Sugar High.  The piece is scolding of the Democrats, because they are failing miserably politically even as they demonstrate solidarity, such as through the recent Women's March.  Here is a relevant paragraph.

Reliance on identity politics and media-cushioned affirmation, and a blind spot to the genuine pain of the white working class, is precisely what produced a President Trump. For the next year, Democrats should filter their policy initiatives through the eyes of the person Trump claims to speak for — the forgotten American.

I am pretty sure that most of the time scolding doesn't work for the recipient.  (I don't deny that it may very well be cathartic for those doing the scolding.)  I believe a gentler message is required, but it is a message that needs to be repeated sufficiently that the point does eventually come across.  Frank Bruni has a milder piece today, though I thought it more about message than about fundamentals.  In my view the messaging issues can't be addressed till the fundamentals are fully taken into account.  Below, I try to do this by looking at the household income distribution.

The Census Bureau provides a variety of tables to consider household income distribution.   Below is a snip from table H-1 for All Races.  I've massaged it some to compute the differences between consecutive entries in the table, which I believe helps to get the full impact of the information provided.  This is done for the years 2010 - 2015.  (I am not sure why there are two different lines for 2013 and what those numbers in parentheses convey, but I included them both so didn't throw away any information that was originally included in the table.)

Here are a variety of caveats to consider before getting to the analysis.
  • The average sized household has 2.6 people.  If you'd like to see where you match up, this should be accounted for.  Single people who will marry in the not too distant future to somebody with approximately the same earnings as themselves will see their household income double, according to this metric, while regarding material well being they may perceive little to no change, as their expenses are also apt to double.   
  • The data makes no allowance for location and cost of living adjustments based on place.  Much has been made recently of urban and rural income differences.  That is not in this table.  
  • Similarly, there is nothing on the age of household members.  Earnings normally do vary over the life cycle.  
  • One other rather important point to recognize is that this is income, not wealth.  For people whose income doesn't vary much over time, the two will likely correlate substantially.  But some people might bounce in their income from one year to the next.  That sort of variation matters to their well being, but isn't accounted for here.  
  • The last point I'll make here is that there is no consideration of publicly provided goods, schools and health insurance for example, and how valuable those are.   For the recipients, those are a kind of income.  Variations in publicly provided goods are not accounted for in this table.

The key message here is found by looking at a row of differences, say the row for the year 2015.  The differences themselves looks like an income distribution.  Each successive difference is larger than its predecessor.  Indeed, the growth in the differences accelerates.  The width of the middle quintile, $28,490 is larger than the maximum of the lowest quintile, $22,000.  The width of the fourth quintile, $45,001 is larger than the maximum of the second quintile, $43,511.  And the width of the ninth decile (each quintile is comprised of 2 deciles), $97,480, is substantially above the maximum of the middle quintile, $72,001.  The upshot is that as you move to the right in the income distribution you get further away from the rest of the population that has less income.

Wikipedia offers a more granular look at this information just for the year 2014.  Here the income bands are of constant width ($5,000) up to $200,000 of income.  Thereafter there is one band with width $50,000 and then all above $250,000 are lumped into a single income band.   In this look, starting at $160,000, which is close to the the lower boundary of the 90th percentile, the fraction of the population within each band declines with income. 

A Veil of Ignorance policy on income would argue for a Robin Hood approach - rob from the rich and give to the poor, except that (a) maybe it shouldn't be considered robbery for the rich to pay more in taxes but rather social obligation, (b) perhaps a good chunk of the rich will embrace this as they come to understand that it is needed to hold the entire system together, and (c) we take a broader look at what it means to be rich.  Occupy Wall Street gave us the rhetoric of the 99% versus the 1% and thus considered the issue entirely in terms of relative income.   We might embrace an alternative where we consider multiples of median household income.  Are you rich if your household has double the median income? triple the median income? quadruple the median income?  etc.?

I use some non-standard language to describe this issue.  I consider myself as belonging to "the professional class" whose members are highly educated and have household income in the top quintile of the distribution.  My sensibilities are distinctly the middle class sensibilities that I was raised on.  My parents came of age during the Great Depression and were poor growing up.  While that was a living memory for them, they have both passed on.  We moved to Bayside when I was a very young kid and lived a middle class lifestyle thereafter.  Further, now my household is able to save a decent chunk of income each year.  People in the professional class can do that.  Those with less income require much more discipline to save.  Before the housing bubble burst many in this category were actually accumulating debt (dissaving).  People in the professional class may describe their situation as comfortable.  For the most part their material wants are satisfied and they feel reasonably secure financially.  They may not consider themselves rich in an absolute sense.  Yet they are clearly much better off than households who are at the median in the income distribution.

I believe that people in the professional class have been co-opted by the Bush Tax Cuts and have come to be selfish, income-wise.  I wrote about this here, demonstrating how tax rates for people in the professional class were much higher under Clinton than they are now.  Those rates were higher still in 1985 under Reagan.  There needs to be leadership on this point.  Right now, I don't see such leadership.

It is easy enough to argue for increased benefits for those in the bottom 4 quintiles of the income distribution, such as making college tuition zero for those people.  Telling potential beneficiaries that their benefits will go up is not hard.  It is also easy to make the argument that the entire additional burden belongs on the uber rich.  In that case the members of the professional class are exempt and can focus on other things.

There are two reasons why this seems wrong to me.  First, we all need to have skin in the game.  This means we have a sense of social obligation.  We need to be talking about obligations more, a lot more.  Paying taxes is one way that we deliver on our social obligation.  This first reason, then, gives the ethical justification for why members of the professional class should be asked to bear a larger burden.

Second, there is the matter of efficacy.  If only the uber rich should pay more in taxes, so they face no pressure to do so from the professional class, won't they be able to avoid the additional taxes altogether say by bribing their elected representatives?  Indeed, isn't that what has been happening over the past several decades?  For efficacy, the number of households that bear a larger tax burden must be substantial.  There can be much progessivity in tax rates within the upper quintile.  In that sense the burden need not be equally shared within the group.  But that each bear some of the burden is crucial.  In other words, individual reluctance to contribute more can be countered when everyone else is making a contribution.

Being outspoken on such views regarding taxation might be political suicide.  I leave that for others to determine.  I want to consider something else here, which gets back at the issue of public goods.  Making modifications to the federal tax system in a Robin Hood manner is not sufficient.  A different idea is articulated in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision.  Separate but equal does not work.  A Veil of Ignorance approach to social justice would be wary of clustering of people, by race as much as by wealth. 

A full treatment of this issue is beyond me now, but I can tie some of it to matters of taxation and in that way relate the one issue to the other.  We live in the world of overlapping jurisdictions for taxation - federal, state, and local and have different types of taxes at each level.  Property taxes, which are a big deal in Illinois typically require the money to be spent in the same jurisdiction as where there the tax revenues are generated.   The result is something like - rich neighborhoods pay a lot in property taxes and thus have good public schools while for poor neighborhoods the reverse is true.  There is no sense of social obligation in this type of system.  There is selfishness built in. 

When I was in graduate school I took a course in Public Finance.  One of the things we studied was the Tiebout Model of local public goods, where different communities offer different packages of public good offerings and taxes and people opt for their preferred bundle by voting with their feet.   Presumably, this is an efficient way to allocate local public goods.  For example, you may prefer a community with beautiful parks, while I prefer a community that has very efficient snow removal.  To the extent that the Tiebout Model is about horizontal quality differences it makes sense to me.

But the quality of the schools issue is about vertical quality differences (good or bad) and using local property taxes to fund schools is a de facto way to violate the spirit of the Brown decision.

When my parents were retired they lived in community called Century Village, in the western part of Boca Raton, Florida.  It was a huge condominium complex.  While my parents did pay property taxes, they paid much more in condo fees - one for their little cluster of buildings called Ainslie, which had its own swimming pool, and one for the larger Century Village community.  The condo fees were an alternative to property taxes.  Those monies were devoted to the upkeep of the community for the benefit of residents and their guests.  Low tax states are apt to have local public goods privately provided in some other way than by the government, such as at Century Village.

We are so used to that approach that we don't question it from an ethical dimension.  If we did talk about it we might find the conversation rather unpleasant, for it would challenge many of our implicit assumptions.  Indeed, I'm finding it difficult to write about here.  It is easy enough to give lip service to increasing responsibility.  It is much harder to operationalize that notion into concrete actions that could be implemented with regard to local public goods.

Maybe this is why the politicians won't touch the stuff.  It is too volatile.  But that is why we should try to do it ourselves, finding where we can challenge our own prior beliefs and where we need to back off because we can't sustain our commitment to the ideal.  I don't know where such a conversation will end up.  But I'm convinced it is a conversation we need to be having.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Red Sox Fans

This post is not about baseball, the title notwithstanding.  But there is some biographic information about me that is relevant here, which explains the title.  I'm a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, which started for real in the Thurman Munson glory years, with significant overlap to my time in graduate school at Northwestern.  Then, this displaced New Yorker was looking for some way to maintain his affinity for New York.  Baseball proved to be it.

During that time the traditional rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox was exceptionally fierce. Fans got caught up in this and, of course, each of these teams had their loyal following.  The Yankees were a team that many others learned to hate, ergo the show and then the movie Damn Yankees! Fans of the Yankees learned to reciprocate, but in a somewhat different way. Since the Yankees won with high frequency in those years, it was not possible to hate other teams that were less successful in quite the same way as how their fans hated the Yankees. But, in the mind of a Yankees fan, that their fans rooted for these other teams surely showed their loyalties were misplaced.  In this way I learned to consider Red Sox fans as lesser sorts of human beings.

In truth, I had and continue to have some good friends who rooted for the Red Sox.  Our rivalry was good natured and was entirely contained to the end of the season and the playoffs.  Still, I've found it useful, on occasion, to overplay this hand, using Red Sox fans as my personal placeholder for the detested other, those people you've come to intensely dislike and don't respect. Hereafter in this piece, when I talk about Red Sox fans, that's what I'm talking about.

There are some core questions I'd like to pose, which I will do from my own personal vantage, but I mean them to apply generally to everyone.  I will follow each question with some discussion.  I certainly don't have full answers, but I do have preliminary thoughts, which I will try to articulate.

Are Red Sox fans necessary for me as a way to focus my animus, an undeniable part of my personality?

Rooting for your favorite team is a very positive act, emotion laden and cathartic.  This is a big part of being a sports fan.  It is not just witnessing excellence in performance.  It is having aspirations and opening ourselves up to the possibility that those aspirations will be realized.  But, of course, failure is possible too and team sports, by design, are zero-sum games.  For each winner there is also a loser.

If you are open to the possibility of success, how do you self-protect against the disappointment of failure?  One way, I know, is to look at injustice as the cause of the outcome.  The umps made a bad call.  The other team cheated in some way.  We deserved to win.  In the heat of the moment, those sort of explanations are readily forthcoming.  Over time, however, the memory of any particular injustice fades and some other and broader form of self-protection is needed.  For me, Red Sox fans serve as a very useful way to address the concern.

Argyris and Schon, those social thinkers who helped me have a more mature view of adults and of managing in organizations, articulate that we have espoused theories and then we have theories in action.  The two are often not in alignment.  In other words, we talk a good game, but we don't live up to our own high standards.

Outside of the world of sports, my espoused theory is to treat everyone with common human decency.  Sometimes I adhere to that.  Other times, I stray.  I have during my professional life experienced substantial antagonism at times.  The Econ department, when I joined it, was intensely political and I got caught up in that.  Later, as a campus administrator and then in the College of Business, I occasionally bumped elbows with people who had an aggressive streak, much more than I had.  Once the path of negotiating it through to a sensible solution appeared blocked with such people, hostility developed in me.   That then became a permanent scar that conditioned subsequent interactions.

More recently, some of that type of attitude has entered into my teaching, where some of the kids seem quite spoiled to me and I soon lose my patience with them because of that.

Coincidentally, the Yankees haven't been very good as of late.  Neither have the other teams I normally root for.  So I've spent much less time in fan mode.  I wonder if these other irritations get to me more now, because I don't have the sports fan release for this sort of emotion.

Is there a difference between politics and sports regarding being a fan and disliking fans who root for the other team?  

I recently watched an old video on YouTube, Phil Rizzuto's speech during his Hall of Fame Induction.  Rizzuto was one of the TV announcers for the Yankees during the glory years.  The other guy in the booth was Bill White.  Both were former MLB players and they spoke with a ballplayer's reverence for the game.  They were a great team and listening to them while watching a ballgame was very enjoyable.  There was a mythic aspect to that and a friendliness in their banter that gave an aura to it all.  Even when calling out people who upset him, he called such a person a huckleberry, Rizzuto showed respect and restraint.

At that time, I don't believe there was any equivalence between caring about politics and being a sports fan.  They were two entirely different things and remained that way at least until cable TV came along and probably for several years after that as well.   After Watergate and the Nixon pardon, interest in politics died down substantially.  For the first campaign where I got to vote for President, I wanted Mo Udall to be the Democratic candidate in 1976, but didn't get bent out of shape that Carter became President instead.  Interest in politics was less intense immediately thereafter and for quite some time to come.

Then some things changed in how sports reporting and commenting were done and likewise on political reporting and commenting that brought the two closer into alignment, regrettably so in my view. The TV show Crossfire on CNN was my introduction into the new approach, with a much more in-your-face style, where the hosts felt no compunction to be rude to their guests on occasion, interrupting them in mid sentence if they felt the need to do so.  This soon had a parallel in the sports world.  It is telling that Keith Olbermann, who practiced the approach with Dan Patrick while they were both on ESPN as co-anchors for the show SportsCenter, took the same act to MSNBC, where he is probably responsible for making them a brand and propagating the approach to all their evening programming.

The in-your-face style of reporting and commenting is not what I grew up with and I am still not comfortable with it.  Even now, it is possible to resist the style or, at least, not to be quite so extreme in practicing it.  The show Pardon the Interruption, with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, (coincidentally, Wilbon was an undergraduate at Northwestern while I was a graduate student there) shows some balance and occasional humor, though it is still too over the top for my taste.   Yet it is a rare thing.  Shows like that are prone to be crowded out by more extreme programming (perhaps because younger reporters don't have a memory of a milder alternative approach), which though less elevating does attract eyeballs.  As I wrote not long ago in a post called Invasive Species and Tabloidism, this is a kind of market failure, one we're not apt to recognize unless we look at it from a historical perspective.  Given that it has happened and become mainstream, being a sports fan and being interested in politics have become similar.  The big difference, it seems to me, is that individual athletic contests end, and there is still such a thing as the off season in sports. With politics now, however, it just seems to go on and on.

The role model for this sort of behavior is heavyweight wresting.  As a kid I would watch that on occasion, when Argentina Apollo, Bobo Brazil, and Gorilla Monsoon were featured and my brother and I would view it in our bedroom on our black and white TV.  Then later, as an assistant professor, I would watch with a friend, for the humor and farce in the pronouncements.  By then it was commonly known to all be an act, a put on.  One could enjoy it on its own terms if own possessed a juvenile sense of humor.  (I suspect that now I wouldn't enjoy it.)  Alas, it is not the same thing at all when the audience isn't in on the gag.  And it becomes still a different matter when, while deliberate, there is no gag.

Can we ever go back to the way news and commenting were or move onto something else which isn't so clearly aimed at stoking the audience?  The partial answer is that we have, with satirical comedy the alternative.  Even when I was a kid there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and the David Frost vehicle That Was The Week That Was.  Then, however, people watched the news or read the newspaper so the role of these shows was much more just for the sake of entertainment, though Nixon did go on Laugh-In to say sock it to me.  So, admittedly, the line between news and entertainment was blurred.  But now, we know, many avoid the news outlets entirely and go straight for the humor/satire.  Further, the shows are more edgy now, matching the way other media gets done.  For the gentler, less edgy, and perhaps more clearly sentimental approach to make a comeback, it would need to confront the increasingly limited attention span of the audience.  Maybe that is possible, though maybe not.

Can you argue with fans from the other team if the rivalry is not friendly?

This is one where the espoused theory, yes you can have such an argument, stands in sharp contrast to the theory in action, where my experience has been that such arguments are extremely frustrating and eventually degenerate into something worse, whereupon they typically lead to fracture.  Understanding that, either the topic is avoided, as a way to maintain the peace, or the people avoid each other, to refrain from the unpleasantness that would surely ensue otherwise should they interact.

Can you restore friendly relationships with people after there has been fracture?  

It's possible, I believe, but consider the expression "bury the hatchet" and take it as a guide.  The more benign admonition, "forgive and forget," largely doesn't work.  People don't forget.  And they don't get over it, unless they are made too.

My mother's parents were killed in a concentration camp.  For quite a while I felt a sense of collective guilt toward German people, including those born well after World War II, so obviously not responsible for the Nazi period in any way.  At some point I got past these feelings.  Perhaps watching German angst movies while a graduate student mattered.  Of that I'm not sure.  I recall in the mid 1980s there was a German woman who was a graduate student in the Economics department, Anita, and I taught her microeconomics.  Anita was a decent and articulate person and that helped this way.  Later, my mother received a kind of personal reparations pension from Germany and from Austria too.  That also helped.

When considering injustice, can we distinguish between a mountain and a molehill or is it all a matter of parallax and who is doing the viewing?  

This one I want to begin straight off by saying that I don't' have an answer.  So instead I will pose a couple of different questions.  Have you been in a situation where you are perceived as a Red Sox fan?  If so, what was that like?

I will recount two situations like that for me, one professional the other familial.

For three years I was the director of a small campus unit called the Center for Educational Technologies (CET).  I loved the structure and the freedom that job afforded me to work hard on the mission, as I understood it.  For the most part, my staff felt the same way.  At the beginning of the third year my boss, the campus CIO, initiated a process to merge CET with the much larger campus computing organization CCSO and his CIO office into an organization that was subsequently known as CITES.  I didn't want the merger and I believe that most CCSO folks didn't want the merger either.  For my part I was afraid that our particular culture in CET would get wiped out and our mission would be compromised.  Nevertheless, my boss prevailed and the merger happened.

In the process I got a title change, something of a promotion, and a bump up in salary.  Further, I was the only one with faculty status in all of CITES, though by that point I was 100% time as an administrator.  Mainly because of the faculty status, I was treated with kid gloves and afforded a lot of respect.  At a personal level, then, the merger worked for me.

But it didn't work nearly as well for my direct reports and the units that they led.  The governance structure contributed to that.  At the highest level was the CIO Cabinet, which I was a member of and which functioned reasonably well.  It was small, collegial, and a place where each participant had a voice.  At the next rung down there was something called the Roundtable, which included the Cabinet and then the various division directors. (My direct reports were division directors.  There were many more and much larger divisions in the rest of the organization.)  The Roundtable meetings were far less satisfying.  They included some sniping by the division directors and some expression of open contempt for other members of the group.  Here I should mention that there was political tension between the various divisions in the old CCSO.  It wasn't just us against them, though it felt that way at times.

The third governance group had acronym MOG, which stood for something like Managers Operations Group.  As an academic first and foremost, I was considered a strategic thinker but definitely not an operations guy.  So I wasn't on the MOG.  Neither was the CIO.  My direct reports attended the MOG and they hated it.  They felt disrespected there and as if their opinions didn't count.  They were getting beaten up by those meetings.  I wanted to protect them, but I didn't have a mechanism to do so.  It was all very frustrating.

Related to this, my units were under financed.  Indeed, much of the larger CITES organization seemed under financed, with the notable exception of the Networking division.  Then there was a different sort of issue, quite apart from the money.  I felt that much of the IT organization was far too insular.  People talked with other IT people only, got their opinions confirmed in those discussions, and then locked into their views.  For the most part they didn't have conversations with people outside of IT and sometimes not even with IT people who were on campus but were located in one of the Colleges rather than in CITES.  These communication failures contributed to an inflexible mindset and a somewhat tyrannical view of how IT should be done on campus.

It was my job, one that I fell into rather than one I sought out, to be the voice of the faculty within CITES.  People seemed to appreciate my articulating an alternative view.  Yet they never showed that appreciation by acceding to my views.  Rather, they acted as if it gave them comfort to proceed as they had been planning to all along, having now heard an alternative suggestion on how to proceed but invariably finding some flaw with that.

After a few years of this, I got fed up with the arrangement.  I left CITES for the College of Business 4 years after the merger happened.  I do want to point out that all of this wasn't just me.  Some years later, after the Campus went through the Stewarding Excellence process, most of the people who were in the divisions that reported to me got reassigned to the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL).  That structure may have made sense back in 2002, when CITES formed, but politics and individual personalities prevented it from happening then.  What they have now still may not be ideal, but it is a better structure than when I was a part of it.

My family story is shorter.  I am a minority of one within my wife's family.  They are Methodists.  I am Jewish.  For the most part, I would say this hasn't mattered and that our collective good nature got us through what otherwise could possibly have been some awkwardness.  There was one time, however, when my kids were quite young and we were visiting my sister-in-law in Texas, when getting along didn't happen.  My mother-in-law, Helen, was there too.  Helen wanted the kids to be Baptized.  I was not asked about this, but had I been I would have been dead against it.  We were at some place they called "the ranch" and while I was off doing something with my sister-in-law's husband, Randy, they performed a little ceremony in the house  (or perhaps outside, that part I don't remember).  I found out about it after the fact.  I was not pleased, for sure.   I then did what I used to do a lot as a teenager.  I mumbled.  That was it.  It didn't come up again, as far as I recall.  But the memory is still there, part of the patchwork quilt of memories from when the kids were young, including many other fond memories of Helen.  She passed away quite a while ago. 

Wrap Up

With sufficient time, it is possible for me to discuss these various incidents without getting too worked up about them   That doesn't mean I'd be able to have an even handed conversation on a parallel matter were something similar to happen now.  In the present tense, it is much harder to keep the anger under wraps.   I don't know anyone who is good at doing that.

Within the context of rooting for the Yankees, being angry at Red Sox fans seems benign to me.  If you have to be angry that's a good outlet for the emotion.  In other contexts, however, letting anger surface is like playing with fire.  It can be very dangerous.

I spend a good chunk of time looking at my Facebook feed, sometimes much more than is healthful for me.   Many of my friends express anger.  Some quite frequently.  The expression, righteous indignation, comes to mind.  Much of it is directed at Trump, but some of it focuses on fellow citizens.    Even if the immediate future looks pretty grim, might there still be a way to heal beyond that?  If so, how could that possibly happen?  It's these questions that explain why I wrote this piece and framed it the way I did. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Bonehead Plays in TV Dramas

This post is meant as lighter fare.  I've been watching a couple of shows as diversion recently, Goliath and Homeland Season 5.  While their plots are quite different they share some common features.  Neither has any comedic elements.  Both have main characters who are highly proficient in what they do.  They are not geniuses in the sense of Albert Einstein, but they have deep understanding as insiders and long-time practitioners who are intensely into their work and whose intelligence manifests that way.  These abilities are then coupled with personal idiosyncrasy that humanizes the characters, but does not diminish their work abilities.

I very much enjoyed Homeland seasons 1 - 3.  The story line was gripping and the plot ingenious.  Season 4 was something of a letdown. Maybe that was unavoidable.  Let's recall that after the Bulls won their third championship in a row, Michael Jordan left the NBA for a couple of years to play baseball (and maybe to get his head right again).  These TV shows that are remarkably successful can't take such a hiatus.  That have a loyal following to keep happy (and, one suspects, the money guys wouldn't tolerate a lengthy interruption).  It's not just that much of the story was about defeat rather than triumph.  It's that the story is mainly set in Kabul but for much of the Americans act as if they are in Washington D.C.  I don't know what Kabul is actually like, but much of the show didn't have the right feel from the get go.

This sort of explanation doesn't work for Goliath, a mini-series that is one and done.  While Goliath doesn't have any comedy, it does have farce, quite a bit.  Characters are exaggerated in their construction.   They are also more uni-dimensional, the good guys and the bad guys, that sort of thing.  Some of the bad guys are really bad and particularly self-serving. 

At critical junctures each story relies on the main character(s) making a really bad mistake.  I asked myself as a viewer, were I in that situation might I make the same mistake?  Or is the mistake incongruous to the character, negligence or a mental lapse this is inconsistent with the rest of the behavior the character performs?

In real life, of course, people do make errors, quite a few of them.  Some of that is incompetence.  Other times, it is breaking down when operating under too much stress.  And then sometimes it is just a bad call made in the heat of the moment.  Major league umpires do that now and then.  But the characters we are talking about are anything but incompetent.  And the errors we're talking about survive substantial potential reflection on the matter, so a rapid call in the heat of the moment doesn't really cut it.  There is enormous stress that they operate under, yes, but otherwise they get things right and, indeed, show they are several steps ahead of everyone else.  So when they make a mistake like this it seems odd.  This is as much true for the villains as it is for the heroes in the story.

I wondered whether it would be possible to construct similar story lines but without these sort of mistakes.  I don't really know but my guess is yes, it is possible, but it makes the writing job harder for those who craft the screenplay.  The story line has to be tighter.  In some sense, these mistakes allow the writers to cheat a little with the story line.  The plot works as they originally conceived it, as long as the mistakes by leading characters are allowed to stand.  The plot fails otherwise, not like a failed coup attempt, but as a story that doesn't grip the viewer.  A really tight story line pulls the viewer in.  One which has these artificial plot devices seems contrived.

I also wonder whether other viewers react similarly to these shows.  I watch these shows substantially after they first appeared, with little to no lag between one episode and then next.  Maybe it is different watching them as they appear, with a week between episodes to let the suspense build.  I don't know.

It is something comparatively new for premium channels like Showtime and HBO to produce their own content and likewise for Amazon Prime and Netflix.  There is obviously a heated competition going on now for viewer eyeballs.  My guess is that competition of this sort is bad for story quality.  As the market gets more niched, the average quality goes down some, or so I conjecture.  Then again, if these shows are not competing with each other so much as they offer an escapism alternative to Bill Maher, John Oliver, and the Daily Show, perhaps that explains it.  I don't watch those shows but my wife does on occasion, so I sometimes hear them in the background.  In my view, they don't set a very high bar.

Alternatively, my tastes may be hopelessly out of date.  Definitely true.  And I'm still nostalgic for The West Wing