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A Thanksgiving Wish/Prayer/Hope

 

This was published in the Roanoke Times on Thanksgiving, 24 November 2016. It is available at this link: http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/commentary/rush-a-thanksgiving-prayer/article_e8cd4298-e6ef-5ba0-9eb0-e21711b8c600.html

I served as dean of a college in the Middle East for three years.  It was impressive to see and hear the United States discussed so frequently in critical terms by denizens of a part of the world in which anti-western sentiment is common.

Questions about the USA frequently focused on our politics.  Over there, it didn’t matter if the president were a Democrat or a Republican.  American military presence in the region had endured under both parties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bore the imprimatur of Democrats and Republicans.  From this perspective, it was never difficult for an observer to identify the contradictions in our political rhetoric, to find reason to cast aspersions on the performance of our political system or, simply, to be angry with the United States.

This same sort of visceral anger has rendered this election year perhaps the most regrettable, divisive, dangerous, ominous… (the list of adjectives goes on) in our history.  The tenor of presidential debates was debased as the candidates spent as much time trading insults as they did addressing the pressing economic problems and growing economic inequality that generate fear and anger among voters of all races and walks of life.

In retrospect, it is horrifying to see that our political system is now as adept at generating anti-Americanism at home as it has been abroad.

It was, at first, a great challenge to try to explain the beauty of the USA to people whose views of our politics and culture are shaped by the same media that has taken sides in this election.  As long as an observer focused on our contemporary politics, it was difficult to convince him or her to look further or more deeply.

As an antidote to this outlook (or perhaps, as a distraction), I would encourage angry observers to look to another American tradition that transcends and predates our politics:  Thanksgiving.  No, not Christmas or the 4th of July…no presents, fireworks, flag waving or gifts that had to be returned.  Instead, I encouraged folks to look at the holiday on which Americans put aside politics, join hands in thanks and share a meal that symbolizes the celebration of the harvest.

This is, I would argue, American culture at its best.  It was not an exaggeration, I would tell them, that even mortal enemies’ hearts would soften if they knew that someone was spending Thanksgiving alone.  Better to share a meal and fall asleep watching football than to expend energy on divisive politics.  Life is better if enemies pause occasionally to find common ground (and acknowledge that it exists).  It was amazing and heartwarming to see that even the most visceral critics of our politics would soften at the thought of our Thanksgiving tradition.

It is serendipitous that Thanksgiving comes just a couple of weeks after Election Day.  This year, more than ever, the country needs to rediscover its common ground in the wake of an election that has exposed and rubbed salt in virtually every political wound imaginable.  Despite occasional acknowledgments of accord (Kaine and Pence agreed that our communities and police need to heal wounds and work together) and respect (by God, Donald Trump is a good father and Hillary Clinton is a tenacious fighter) our presidential candidates have done little to suggest that the country can move forward together to solve the economic problems that divide it.

Despite the damage done to the electorate by the septic rhetoric of the presidential campaign and the fallout of the election, Thanksgiving looms once again as a chance to demonstrate to ourselves that there is more that unites the nation than divides it.  In ancient Greece, city-states would pause wars and put down their weapons to celebrate the Olympics. Maybe the country can put this election behind us in a spirit of Thanksgiving…Amen.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln. FDR. Reagan…Trump??? The 2016 election in historical perspective.

In this column in the Richmond Times, I note that 2016 marks the point at which scholars would have predicted a major shift in the American Electoral Landscape.  Trump and Clinton are merely symptoms of a predictable shift in US politics.

749 Words on the 2016 Election

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked several colleagues the following question: “What does it tell us about the state of political discourse, or, indeed, of the state of the country itself, when the largest issue of the week between the two officially nominated major candidates for the presidency of the United States is whether or not former Miss Universe gained too much weight?

It seemed the presidential campaign had hit rock bottom.  Then, just when we all thought we had seen Trump do it all, he outdid himself and the videorecording was uncovered.  Are there any apologists left for US politics?

Trump is a symptom. Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, was right:  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Political scientist Morris Fiorina’s observation about congressional elections applies as well to presidential elections: Candidates will avoid discussing real issues at any cost and will happily discuss red herrings instead because this avoids accountability and controversy. As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Mencken could have left out the adjective “common.”  The fact is, in the early 1970s, the American people called for so-called “reforms” to the electoral process in response to numerous events:  18 year olds could not vote, yet the country sent them off to Vietnam; In 1968 and 1972, neither party addressed the Vietnam war with any seriousness despite the protests of our young people; minority voting rights were still imperiled; Richard Nixon had been elected and had relied upon a small number of powerful, wealthy campaign supporters; Congress was controlled by an oligarchy of ageing, powerful committee chairs (most of whom happened to be conservative southern Democrats) that obstructed social and racial justice legislation.  The list goes on.

So, what did we do?  We “democratized” the political process by decentralizing its process of control.   We passed campaign finance legislation that emasculated the party organizations.  We replaced the traditional convention system of nomination with the direct primary. Congress replaced a small number of committee chairs with dozens of subcommittee fiefdoms.

The result?  We suffer endless, increasingly costly primary and general election cycles; a proliferation of the number of candidates vying for the presidential nominations;  an inability of the party organizations to control who represents them (so, characters such as David Duke and Donald Trump are able to hijack the nomination process); unbeatable congressional incumbents who are gerrymandered into office essentially for life; abysmal voter turnout; an, presidential election processes that become mired in discussions about how much weight Miss Venezuela put on…or worse.

Perhaps the best summary of this process and the mess it got us into is by Jonathan Rauch in the July/August Atlantic Monthly.  In an outstanding piece called “How American Politics Went Insane,” Rauch documents the small-d democratization of our political system that led us to our current situation.  In short, we destroyed the political middle-managers such as political party chairs who are necessary for good politics

Millennial critics might poo-poo this in favor of the mass, democratic models of politics embodied in the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring or, more recently, protests on college campuses.  But, how effective were they?  Such movements have proven to be better at dismantling political systems than building or repairing them.

There is no doubting the sense of justice and/or frustration that informed small-d democratic impulses running from the American reforms of the 1970s to the Arab Spring, contemporary campus protests and, perhaps, the Brexit revolt in the UK. But, absent strong, wise leaders, populist impulses can lead to disastrous, if not unintended consequences.  Thus, the Brexiteers awoke to discover that they had won the referendum, but had no plan or strategy to implement the exit.  Americans now suffer costly, unending election cycles that produce candidates with terrible approval ratings and governments that are unresponsive.

One shortcoming to Rauch’s analysis is that he offers little in the way of concrete suggestions for repairing American politics.  In part, this is extraordinarily difficult because it is hard to advocate reforms that would be based on a call for less democracy. But, in reality, less democracy is what the U.S. political system is all about.  This is a constitutional democracy.  The people’s power—however final–was supposed to be attenuated.

Alas, the 9/11 attacks did not inspire us to improve our politics; nor did Hurricane Katrina.  One wonders what sort of political disaster it will take.  Is the 2016 election close enough to  work?

 

Moonlighting: Reflections on 2016 Baseball Analysis

I offer here  a list of links to my 2016 Baseball articles.  Some were pretty solid.  Others, not as solid as I’d like (apologies to Baltimore and Toronto, whom I underestimated).

The columns received differing levels of play in several different venues.  The Studs and Duds columns did quite well.  My early season analysis of player rankings and dollar values also score a lot of hits.

This really is a great deal of fun and gives me the opportunity to dedicate some time to the analysis of a sport I love.  Many thanks to my colleagues at Major League Fantasy Sports for the chance to trade notes  and work with them.  Check out the site.  It’s a great source of commentary, snarkiness, humor and fine analysis of all sports.   Some of the writers are superior analysts of really granular data and trends.  My stuff moves back and forth between macro level analysis  of players and the league as a whole (see the historical trend pieces) and more granular analysis  of pitching. Heck, they even let me put on my professor’s hat and edit.  Nothing worse that good sports analysis marred by a split infinitive, gerund without a possessive or dangling modifier…

Anyway, it’s awesome to be able to do this.  Baseball is a fantastic sport that appeals to  the romantic  as well as the geek.  If you want to understand Americans, strip away politics and other stuff and talk sports. Even folks who can’t stand one  another will be upset if they know that even a sworn enemy is eating turkey and watching football  alone on Thanksgiving…  Sports get us through long winters and hot  summers.  Noah Syndergaard said it poignantly in an epic tweet after the Mets lost to the Giants:

Baseball has a way of ripping your ❤️ out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.

Now then…

“September Studs and Duds”–a reflection on who paid dividends and who killed our rosters

“Strategic Stat Categories and Late Season Moves“–An historical analysis of trends in key counting stats–Saves, Quality Starts, etc.

“Go Big or Go Home: A Rumination of Midsummer Baseball Trends”–a little ancient Greek navigation, some stellar metaphors, and  baseball…

Fourth of July, All-Star Break Analysis

Early Season Studs and Duds Analysis, Part II

Early Season Studs and Duds Analysis, Part I

The 25% Solution–Analysis of the first quarter of the Season

Mid-May Musings on Pitching Prowess and Proficiency–An alliterative analysis of Pitching stats.  More than any other aspect of the game,  pitching stats tell  you an incredible amount about pitchers.  Other stats are harder to  parse.

Lucky Charms and (un?)Lucky Pitchers–oh…just a little anger-inspired analysis of a pitcher who was  killing me.   I included several other  early season duds to provide cover and credibility.  I hope Chris Archer was not upset…

Statistical Analysis of Pitching–rant early and rant often.  Seriously.  Why wait till July to complain about fantasy baseball.   Early-season rants will enable you to refine your venomous words so  that the  pro players get REALLY upset  at you later…

Ailing Aces“–A pretty insightful analysis of what was going on with three stud pitchers who were underperforming.

Week 3 Analysis of the American League East–Wow.  Someone must have misread my c.v.  They handed  this analysis over to a Red Sox fan.

Week 1 Statistically Unsound Assessment of the AL and NL East–OK.  You want analysis with virtually no useful data?  I can do  that…

2016 AL and NL East Predictions–Spring Training is over, the season is not under way.   So, predict… Actually, not half bad. Apologies to  Toronto and Baltimore.  Well, not really…

Preseason Analysis of the San Diego Padres.  Waiting for Todd Gurley…

Preseason Analysis of the Philadelphia Phillies.  Not so sunny in Philadelphia.  Waiting for a year  or two.   Lots of good baby pitchers here.

Preseason Analysis of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When Fantasy is better than Reality…

Preseason Analysis of the Baltimore Orioles.  Wow.  They did better than I anticipated. Where did that pitching come from?

Preseason Analysis of the Boston Red Sox.  OK.  I may have been a homer…but I was right  on this one–David Price’s underwhelming performance notwithstanding.  Ojala que las estrellas nos  bendiguen..

Preseason Analysis of Starting Pitchers–Part n.  OK.  SO, they wanted me to come up with a tag line.  Jettisoned (along with the platinum blonde soul patch) later…

Preseason Starting Pitching Analysis–some pretty decent  wisdom and preseason here.

Celebrating the Super Bowl and the Last Days  of the Hot Stove League.  Column #1

Midseason MLB analysis: Major League Fantasy Sports

My latest analysis is here at majorleaguefantasysports.

Pretty amazing data in the MLB this year.  Batting and pitching are both strong.  The nuances of data are part of the beauty of baseball.

Why are we celebrating the world’s largest underwater restaurant?

In this story, RealClearPolitics describes  the opening of the world’s largest underwater restaurant in the Maldives.  Sure, it’s a cool concept.    But…

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RealClearPolitics 6 July 2016

The Maldives are beautiful, sunwashed islands.  But, soon they will be under water.  In fact, the same folks who bring us underwater restaurants held several government meetings under water in 2009 in an attempt to  make the world aware of their impending doom.

Folks like the ocean…except when it moves in and takes over.  When they finish eating and communing with fish, they want to go home to dry land unless, of course, you are megalomaniacal James Bond villain Karl Stromberg who’s decided that, on balance, humanity’s  way past its shelf life and needs an upgrade.  Ultron had the same idea.  But he intended to achieve the same ends by dropping a city on the planet.

Whereas Ulron and Stromberg wanted to  extinguish humanity, rising seas will not–at least, not as quickly.  Instead, they will create a new class of truly stateless migrants.

Amazingly, on the same day that RealClearPolitics published its piece on Poseidon’s new  hangout in the Maldives, The New York Times  ran a piece that suggested an alternative reaction to  rising seas.  In the Chesapeake Bay, residents of  Tangier Island are not preoccupied with hiring underwater chefs and wait-staff.  Instead, as this article in the New York Times Magazine discusses, the issue is  whether the federal government should save the island from being inundated.

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New York Times Magazine 6 July 2016

 

Readers should shudder at  both stories.  What looms is a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Where will  these  refugees go? When should they go?  Who should receive them?

Hollywood generates all sorts of fantastic world ending scenarios.  In a universe expanding so  quickly that  it alters the speed of light waves, films such as Battleship and both Independence Days suggest that aliens from across this vast, expanding space have nothing better to do but to come and take over the earth.  Heck, this was Loki’s plan in The Avengers.  Seems that the universe offers very little prime real estate.

Sadly, the joke will be on all these hypothetical invaders because, after they take over, they will discover that a nontrivial amount of that real estate will be underwater.   Seems their interdimensional probes missed this.

Seriously:  aliens are unlikely to invade.  But the seas will rise and we will have environmental refugees.  Is the world (and its laws) prepared to address this situation effectively?

Mid-Season Baseball Analysis 2016

In lieu of commenting on an ever-depressing political  landscape, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to baseball  analysis for Majorleaguefantasysports.  This is  a great site operated by a great group of folks who are dedicated to sports and analysis.

My latest  couple of columns embody some macro-level  analysis of the first half of 2016 for both pitchers and batters.  One of the intriguing aspect of baseball  analysis  and, in particular, its translation into  fantasy analysis, is  the connection between players’ performance in real life and their valuation in the fantasy markets.   This  parallels any analysis of  stock prices or values  at an auction:  how do  we take a complex portfolio of attractive  and  not-so-attractive assets and assign a particular dollar value or  ranking (relative value) to  it?

In this column,  I  address this with regard to  batters.  I followup  in this column with a similar analysis of  pitchers.  Finally, in this column, I  offer a reflection on the fickleness the  relationship between value and performance.

More to  come, of course.  We are only halfway through the season.

Moonlighting: My latest baseball columns

It’s great to  be writing on baseball again. The crisp spring air…the crack of the bat.

I’m now writing for majorleaguefantasysports.com.  I’ve started the season doing analysis of Starting Pitchers.  the first two columns are located here.

Comments  welcome.

 

If you want to Understand NH and Iowa, Look to Europe

If you want to understand what’s going on in American politics, look around the world. Whether we Americans like it or not, American exceptionalism is and always has been a myth. The country is subject to the same forces that shape the world.   It is just that, throughout out our history, geography, economics and wealth have protected us.

No more. Technology has overcome geography. Financial crises that begin in Thailand end up destroying our real estate markets. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the occupation of public lands in Oregon are echoes of the Arab Spring. The nation is wealthy, but not as wealthy as it was when, in the mid-20th century, much of the nonwestern world lived in relatively desperate conditions. Now, the wealth in Asia and the Middle East rivals that in the west.

Global politics has changed. The wave of change that began with the fall of the Berlin wall now manifests itself around the world as the far right and the far left challenge politics as usual.

We saw this in the Spanish election of 2015.   For decades, Spain was the poster child of democratic transitions.   It seemed to prove that a nation could escape the oppression of a Francoist right wing dictatorship and transform into a modern, liberal polity. Of course, it helped that Spain was located on the western frontier of the European Union. Spain wanted access to Europe’s markets and vice versa.

It is easy to transform peacefully amidst wealth.

But, 40 years after Franco’s death, Spain experienced an electoral earthquake. New, populist parties on the right and the left arose and destroyed the center-right Popular Party and the Center-Left Socialists. Podemos (“we can”) challenged the Socialists’ antiquated notions of European welfare and the Citizens’ Party expressed impatience with the Center-Right’s inability to challenge the increasingly antiquated Socialists. So, the young rose up on the right and the left and challenged the comfortable centrist status quo that their political parents and grandparents had created.

In the United States, we feel the repercussions of this same impatience with politics as usual. Trump is succeeding because his many GOP rivals will not yield in favor of a stronger, party organization that has lacked a coherent ideology since Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet Union. The GOP rivals are playing a dangerous game of chicken in which, it is clear, no one is likely to swerve.  The most likely result will  be a brokered convention.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders embodies the anger of the Occupy Movement and the youth who have no loyalty to the Democratic Party status quo. Sanders’ undoing will be that he must challenge the Clinton political machine. Whereas Trump can play a cautious game in which he seeks only to ensure a brokered political convention (a virtual certainty as long as he has double-digit rivals), Bernie must look to defeat Hillary Clinton one-on-one. That is unlikely to happen so long as she has Bill Clinton campaigning for her.

What will come of this election? It will not be the revolution that Bernie Sanders seeks. But, we can expect that the GOP will seize this opportunity to reform its nomination process and the political party structure. Presidential candidates must endure a lengthy, expensive nomination process that was designed in response to Richard Nixon’s campaigns. Reacting to his reliance on great sums of money and insider politics, the Democrats opened up their presidential primaries to let the people chose their nominee. The process as designed to ensure that virtually anyone could run for president and win.

As we see in 2016, anyone can and does run. “Anyone” was supposed to be a peanut farmer from Georgia who is able to challenge the political party establishment by taking principled stands and running as an outsider. As we see in 2016 (and saw in 2012), “Anyone” includes the wealthy as well as the commoners. The result is a GOP that has not had a coherent, central ideology (try to triangulate Sarah Palin, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump) and a Democratic Party that is torn between a weakened, wishy-washy middle and an angry populist left wing.

The reforms of the 1970s have begotten unbeatable, gerrymandered incumbents, skyrocketing election costs, political parties with no ideological core, and presidential candidates who struggle to govern alongside an entrenched Congress. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may not be the ideal presidential candidates for their parties or the United States. But, they manifest the deep-seeded discontent that the people have for their political system. Sanders may not win. The best Trump can hope for is to force a brokered convention at which he will not win.

The result  will  be a move towards stronger, more ideologically coherent political parties that guard their  nominations from pillaging by outsiders such as Trump and Palin.   We will not return to the smoke-filled rooms of yore.  But, not  just  anyone  will be able to hijack the nomination process and leave the people with a choice among candidates that really represent neither political party.

The 2016 election will go down in history as a watershed election that brought the political revolutions from across the globe into U.S. Politics.  It’s impact will be felt far into the 21st century.

#AACU16 Thoughts and Reflections

Great insights  on the annual  meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities  from Bryan Alexander here.

Bryan nicely documents the various threads/themes running through the conference.  It is always an intriguing mixture of discussions concerning:

challenges to the liberal model of higher education

the democratizing role of technology in education (and the perceived threat  it poses to the liberal  model)

study abroad

new/innovative pedagogy

 

As always, Bryan offers  some great food for thought.  More to  come in response to his posting.   For now, I’m happy to publicize his thoughts.