Friday, July 19

One More

One more quick note: Eric McErlain says that he's going to be rooting for the Dallas Cowboys this year. And while I generally hold in contempt anyone who lives outside Texas and roots for the Cowboys, Eric actually offers an excellent reason. It's a great story; check it out.


My whirlwind tour of the northeast continues, as I try to jam as much into five Noah-free days as possible. In the last 72 hours I've gone from Indianapolis to Middlebury, Vermont, to Montreal to New York, where I now find myself in between a day at Macworld Expo (and a brief visit of my 92-year-old great-aunt) and an evening seeing Neil Finn in concert. So no time for blogging today.

I do, however, want to note that Matthew Yglesias has gone and got himself a fancy new site, free of the various woes of Blogger and Blogspot. Congratulations on the successful move, Matthew.

Thursday, July 18

The Worm Turns?

Ted Barlow links to an extraordinary op-ed piece about the president's business history and its relevance to the current business scandals. The piece perfectly captures the principal reason that I find Bush distasteful: the way that, thanks to his connections and his family name, he was able to fail upward continually, into a large personal fortune and ultimately into the presidency itself. But that's not what's extraordinary about the column. The remarkable thing, rather, is the identity of its author: Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the conservative Weekly Standard. The fact that conservatives are beginning to write like this suggests that the story has real legs.

A Few Random Thoughts from Montreal

* The Stade Olympique is not the most dismal stadium in which I've ever seen a ballgame—that dishonor belongs to the now-departed Seattle Kingdome—but it's close. The cavernous dimensions mean that unless you're lucky enough to be seated directly behind home plate (as I was), you are a long way from the action, even if your seats are by one of the dugouts. And the roof leaks, directly over home plate on this evening. As a thunderstorm raged outside, Met batter after Met batter glanced upward upon arriving at home plate; several spoke to the umpire, who on one occasion called for a towel to wipe the plate clean—the standard broom wouldn't work in the muck. The Expos batters, meanwhile, seemed unsurprised and unperturbed—this clearly has happened before.

* The crowd Wednesday night was bigger than I expected, especially given that we had been able to obtain seats in the fourth row behind the plate, three weeks before the game. The announced crowd was 13,402, not bad for a team that is almost certainly in its final year in Montreal, if not in its final year altogether. Of course, I'd say that at least 3,000 of the crowd were Mets fans. I've never seen that many Mike Piazza shirts outside of Shea Stadium.

* Baseball sounds funny in French, and I say this as someone who started learning French at age five. "Voltigeur de gauche" is harder to say than "left-fielder," even for the Quebecois ballpark announcer.

* Given my past rants, it's hard for me to say this, but it is possible, just possible, that Mo Vaughn is on the brink of becoming a net positive for the Mets. This night he was 3-for-3 with a walk. He also produced one of the most incredible sights on the baseball diamond that I've experienced. Remember, I saw David Cone strike out 19 Phillies for the Mets in 1991; I saw the Red Sox ground into two triple plays in a single game in 1990 (the anniversary of which was noted on the scoreboard last night). Those events may top last night, but nothing else I've seen can best the sight of Mo Vaughn scoring twice from first on doubles. I wouldn't call it running, exactly, but the man can lumber at moderate speed.

* Roger Cedeno is fast, but the man has the baseball instincts of a fruitfly. In the fifth inning, he inexplicably dove for a ball he had no reasonable chance to catch, instead of simply playing it off the hop; his misplay led to a double and a run scored instead of a single and two men on. In the seventh, he overran second base and was tagged out on a perfect sacrifice attempt by Rey Ordonez. And in the eighth he dropped a fly ball; his two-base error gave the Expos new life after the Mets had taken a five-run lead in the top of the inning.

* The Mets were uncharacteristically efficient with their offense, scoring nine runs on fourteen hits and leaving only three men on base. Any good feelings that their production might have spawned were immediately undone, however, as the Mets this afternoon racked up thirteen hits but only one run and lost, 2-1, breaking a four-game winning streak.

* The kosher hot dogs in the first-level concession stand are superb, the best ballpark hot dogs I've ever had. For this reason, if for no other, baseball will suffer a notable loss next year, when the Expos leave Montreal.

Wednesday, July 17

Jed Bartlett and Al Gore

Avedon Carol responded to my post commenting on Matthew Yglesias’s comparison of Vermont Governor Howard Dean to The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett (this all gets rather convoluted, doesn’t it?). In my post, I suggested that in the real world Jed Bartlett would never be elected. Avedon responds:

I disagree. I think a horny version of Jed Bartlett was pretty much who Americans thought they were electing in 1992, as a matter of fact. And in 2000, the plurality of Americans thought they were electing a less folksy version of Bartlett. Actually, Gore is in many respects just as folksy as Bartlett, but the press did their best to hide that fact from the public.

I have to respectfully disagree with this analysis. First, I think it misconstrues Bartlett’s appeal, which extends well beyond folksiness (Bush, if anything, is far more folksy than Bartlett). Let’s remove Martin Sheen from the picture and just give a description of the character: an unabashed intellectual with a doctorate in economics, a former college professor, a liberal governor of a New England state with no military experience. Is this really someone who could be elected president? The American electorate generally doesn’t respond favorably to eggheads, a factor that played into Bush’s hands in 2000. Bartlett is in many ways the Democrats’ fantasy president--Bill Clinton with personal and political discipline--but in a different way he’s also Rush Limbaugh’s fantasy Democratic candidate.

In my post, I also said: “Although I haven't yet chosen a favorite candidate (anyone but Gore is my current preference), I must admit that I'm intrigued by Dean, about whom I've been hearing for a few years from my mother, a Vermont resident.” Avedon responds to my preference for “anyone but Gore”:

But, Jeff, you're making the same mistake Gore made in 2000 - you're letting the conventional wisdom sway you. No one in their right mind should be buying the "anyone but Gore" line unless they want to see Bush stay in the White House. "Anyone" would include the intolerable Joe Lieberman, for example. It would also include all those Democratic Senators who let Ashcroft slide into the AG seat, who sang those awful renditions of "God Bless America," and who put their hands on their hearts to show their opposition to your Constitutional rights. Gore is still the cleanest and smartest guy in the running, and anyway, he won last time, no matter what anyone tells you.
I confess to overstating my dislike of Gore. Avedon is entirely correct that there are worse possible candidates; Joe Lieberman certainly is one. But there are plenty of reasons to wish that Al Gore would just fade away. Gore ran a vicious campaign based on half-truths and distortions against his primary challenger, Bill Bradley (who was my senator for many years, and for whom I interned while in high school). In a sense, that campaign did the voters a service, as it exposed Bradley as someone who was ill-suited for the rough-and-tumble of presidential politics, but the tactics used were still hardly to Gore’s credit. Gore then ran the worst fall campaign since Dukakis’s pathetic 1988 effort. Anyone who is unable to convert eight years of peace and increasing prosperity into an electoral victory has to be reckoned a terrible politician, especially given the weakness of his opposition. And while I have no doubt that Gore still would have eked out a victory were it not for the ballot fiascos in Florida, Gore managed the recount effort badly, too.

Gore thus would enter the 2004 campaign with major liabilities. The memory of his deeply flawed 2000 campaign would linger. Unfair as the media’s labeling of Gore as a serial liar was, that label too would continue to adhere. The stain of questionable fundraising practices remains as well, controlling legal authority or no. Among large portions of the electorate, Gore remains notable chiefly as the butt of jokes, a difficult obstacle to overcome. And, as I’ve pointed out before, by attempting a rematch Gore would also be bucking history.

Gore’s Democratic rivals lack much of this baggage. Contrary to Avedon’s implied suggestion, John Kerry and John Edwards voted against John Ashcroft’s confirmation as Attorney General. And while she is correct that the Democratic presidential wannabes in the Senate voted for the USA Patriot Act, it might be recalled that the Clinton-Gore administration had a rather weak record on civil liberties as well.

In short, while I voted for Gore in 200 I can’t agree that “Gore is still the cleanest and smartest guy in the running.” If anything would ensure a Bush reelection, it would be Gore’s nomination as his Democratic opponent.

Tuesday, July 16

An Open Letter in Support of the People of Iran from the Weblogging Community

To show our support for the Iranian people, we each have agreed to display this letter.

We are not politicians, nor are we generals. We hold no power to dispatch diplomats to negotiate; we can send no troops to defend those who choose to risk their lives in the cause of freedom. What power we have is in our words, and in our thoughts. And it is that strength which we offer to the people of Iran on this day.

Across the diverse and often contentious world of weblogs, each of us has chosen to put aside our differences and come together today to declare our unanimity on the following simple principles:

- That the people of Iran are allies of free men and women everywhere in the world, and deserve to live under a government of their own choosing, which respects their own personal liberties.

- That the current Iranian regime has failed to create a free and prosperous society, and attempts to mask its own failures by repression and tyranny.

We do not presume to know what is best for the people of Iran; but we are firm in our conviction that the policies of the current government stand in the way of the Iranians ability to make those choices for themselves.

And so we urge our own governments to turn their attention to Iran. The leaders and diplomats of the world's democracies must be clear in their opposition to the repressive actions of the current Iranian regime, but even more importantly, must be clear in their support for the aspirations of the Iranian people.

And to the people of Iran, we say: You are not alone. We see your demonstrations in the streets; we hear of your newspapers falling to censorship; and we watch with anticipation as you join the community of the Internet in greater and greater numbers. Our hopes are with you in your struggle for freedom. We cannot and will not presume to tell you the correct path to freedom; that is for you to choose. But we look forward to the day when we can welcome your nation into the community of free societies of the world, for we know with deepest certainty that such a day will come.

Flying the Coop

I'll be traveling for the rest of the week, taking a whirlwind tour of the northeast, with stops in Vermont, Montreal, and New York. I won't have regular internet access, so blogging will be intermittent through Sunday, although I'll try for at least one post per day. In the meantime, I leave you with the above, courtesy of N.Z. Bear and John Weidner.

Support Your Blogathoners

Meryl Yourish and Laurence Simon are among those who will participate in Blogathon 2002. Starting the morning of July 27, they'll each post every half hour for 24 hours in support of important causes, Meryl for Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Laurence for Magen David Adom.

Meryl was one of my inspirations when I began writing this blog. Her writing at the end of March, alternatively searing and bitterly funny, helped me channel my moods in the aftermath of the Passover suicide bombing. And, for those who don't already know, Larry Simon is a Norse god. I'm thinking Loki.

Monday, July 15

Competitive Balance Revisited

Charles Kuffner replied to my post about competitive balance, which was initially inspired by a post of his. Charles has some valid criticisms of my post, I think, but he also mischaracterizes a couple of my points while simultaneously shifting the ground from his original argument to a new one. Because I think this is an interesting topic, particularly in light of the likely upcoming work stoppage in baseball, I'll have another go at the subject.

Charles's original post, which prompted my response, made a single point, really: that while many people talk about baseball lacking competitive balance, in fact a greater percentage of major league teams have played in the World Series over the last 20 years than have NFL teams in the Super Bowl or NBA teams in the NBA finals. I replied that I thought the 20-year timeframe was too long, given that baseball's financial troubles have (allegedly) become markedly worse since the last strike, which ended in April 1995. I therefore set up a comparison between the NFL and Major League Baseball, looking at the teams that competed in the World Series and the Super Bowl, as well as the teams that won division titles or wild card spots (to make the comparison work, I listed only the NFL team in each conference for each year that had the best record of the three wild-card finishers). And the results showed, pretty starkly, that a lot more NFL teams had been competitive than had MLB teams. I attributed this result, at least in part, to the fact that the NFL has a salary cap, and baseball does not.

In his response, Charles makes several good points about the NFL. First, the NFL goes out of its way to promote parity, not just through the draft (which is more important in football than in baseball) but also through unbalanced scheduling, which tends to reward the poorer teams with easy schedules while burdening successful teams with more challenging opponents (fans of the Chicago Bears, who went from worst to first last year, should keep this in mind as they look forward to 2002). Baseball's schedules are slightly unbalanced, because each team has a designated interleague "rival" that it plays in home-and-home series every year, and some teams have more powerful rivals than others (the Mets draw the short end of the stick here, playing six games against the Yankees). But for the most part competing teams play near-identical schedules.

Football also has a much shorter schedule—16 games versus 162 for baseball. If a football team goes on a two-month hot streak, it's almost certainly in the playoffs, probably by winning the division; if a baseball team goes on a two-month hot streak, there are no guarantees. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, football has real, effective revenue sharing, based on national television contracts that pay the league obscene amounts of money. Baseball shares its national television revenues, but the amounts are smaller, and each team keeps its own local broadcast revenues, whether those are enormous (the Yankees) or virtually nonexistent (the Expos).

Some of Charles's comments, though, are nonresponsive. He notes, for example, that the NFL playoffs involve more teams than do the MLB playoffs. Yes, well, that's why I limited my chart to division winners and the top wild card teams in each conference. The NFL may have multiple wild card teams each year, but you'll note that every Super Bowl participant listed in my chart was either a division winner or a top-seeded wild card team. Limiting the chart as I did allowed a more direct comparison of football and baseball than otherwise would have been possible; it wasn't a perfect solution, but it was at least an attempt,, and an attempt that Charles ignores.

Charles also points out that under the reserve clause, which gave management total control over player movement, there was no competitive balance at all—especially in the American League, where the Yankees won year after year after year. True enough. But I wasn't advocating a return to the reserve clause. And the reserve clause is not an "ultimate salary cap." While it certainly held down salaries, it also restricted player movement through the absence of free agency, making rapid improvement more difficult. A salary cap would not mean the end of free agency, although it would certainly make free agency a more complicated process—as the NFL experience has shown.

Charles also insists that the salary cap hasn't led to competitive balance in the NFL. The evidence suggests otherwise. The years prior to the adoption of the cap were characterized by dominance by a few great teams—the 49ers in the 1980s, the Cowboys in the 1990s, with the Giants and Redskins also winning multiple Super Bowls and the Buffalo Bills representing the AFC in the Super Bowl for four straight years. This was so even though there was (admittedly limited) free agency, even though the NFL structured the draft and the schedules to try to create parity, and even though the short schedule might be thought to create greater variability. Since 1995, as my chart showed, only one NFL team has repeated as Super Bowl champion, and ten different teams have filled the fourteen different Super Bowl slots. That's a real difference, and the salary cap has had a role in it.

That said, I don't want to sound like an advocate for a salary cap. The salary cap has had a destructive impact on team stability in the NFL. This has been clear since the early days of the cap, when Phil Simms quarterbacked the Giants to a playoff berth in 1993 and then was released for cap reasons. Much as I despise George Steinbrenner, and despite my being a Mets fan, I have to admire the way the Yankees have kept the core of their team together over the past six years, slotting in new players only when the existing ones retired or failed to perform. They almost certainly couldn't do the same thing under a salary cap. The same is true of the accursed Braves, who have put together a marvelous run over the course of more than a decade. But then, it's important to remember that few of the other teams in baseball could operate as the Yankees and Braves have, even in the absence of a salary cap.

I also don't want to come across as an apologist for the baseball owners or for the loathsome Bud Selig. You want to persuade me that the game is in dire shape? Fine, show me the books. If you're unwilling, I'm not particularly interested in hearing your complaints, particularly when they're presented as clumsily as Selig does.

Ultimately, a large part of baseball's current problem is a competence gap, even though finances also play a role. A team with excellent scouting, a strong minor league system, and a savvy general manager can compete even in a small market, as the Oakland A's are currently demonstrating. A team with a mediocre minor league system and a boneheaded general manager will struggle, even if it spends lots of money—see the Texas Rangers and (sigh) the Mets. This, I think, is Charles's ultimate point. It's part of David Pinto's conclusion (the Blogger bug strikes again) on this issue, too, although David places a lot of emphasis on the need for revenue sharing. Me, I'd like to see revenue sharing tried without a salary cap for awhile, but I doubt it's going to happen: baseball's heading for a train wreck, and I don't see how it can be avoided.

But in the meantime, Charles made a particular argument based on a particular data set; I didn't think that the data set supported the conclusion and explained why; Charles's response makes some interesting points, but it still doesn't persuade me that what I see in the data isn't really there. Again, you can argue about whether competitive balance is a good thing or a bad thing, whether it's a worthy goal or not, but the fact remains: since instituting a salary cap, football has had it; in the absence of a salary cap, baseball in the recent past has not.

You Won't Like Me When I'm Angry

Apple was taking a risk when it tweaked the tiger's tail with its new "Switch" promotional campaign, which touts the virtues of the Mac over Windows PCs. Now Microsoft has responded, making pre-emptive announcements of vaporware technologies, ripping Apple's promotion of Mac OSX and threatening to withdraw Microsoft Office from the Mac platform after 2003. Coming as it does the week of the semi-annual Macworld trade show, these announcements were timed to do maximum damage during Apple's big week.

The message to Apple is clear: keep to your place. Apple's continued existence is useful to Microsoft: it provides a bit of an antitrust shield, as Microsoft can point to the continued existence of competitors in the operating system market (although Microsoft's operating system market share is so great that, for antitrust purposes, it clearly has a monopoly in that market). But, as its conduct over time clearly demonstrates, Microsoft has no interest in genuine competition. Apple thus needs to tread a fine line as it moves forward.

Rhetorical Bomb-throwing

I've stayed away from commenting on Ann Coulter's Slander and the controversy surrounding her book tour. In part, that's because bloggers like Alex Frantz (whose permalinks are broken; the post was last Friday) and the Indepundit have done such a superb job of pointing out the blatant lies that permeate Coulter's book. In part, it's because my attractive blond ultra-right-wing commentator of choice is Laura Ingraham, with whom I shared an office one summer during law school. Ah, Laura, so alluring, yet so irredeemably evil. The stories I could tell….

Ahem. In any event, I did have one point about Coulter that I wanted to make, but Bryan Keefer of Spinsanity beat me to it. The point is that Coulter's success, like that of Michael Moore on the other side of the political spectrum, shows how debased our political culture is. After describing the myriad flaws in Coulter's book, Keefer writes:

A surprising amount of what Coulter has to say about the conduct of contemporary political debate rings true. "Instead of actual debate about ideas and issues with real consequences," Coulter writes, "the country is trapped in a political discourse that increasingly resembles professional wrestling." Likewise, she derides "arguments by demonization" and argues that "[l]ies and personal attacks are deeply corrosive of public debate and democratic compromises." She correctly observes that perceptions and falsehoods promulgated in the media have a self-reinforcing quality: "Cliches, biases and outright lies are constantly reinforced through the media echo chamber." But given how she herself uses these tactics throughout the book, even Coulter's more astute observations raise obvious charges of hypocrisy.

Yet "Slander's" sales, alongside those of Coulter's political opposite, Michael Moore, reveal something sad and important about the state of the country: Those with a talent for inflammatory rhetoric rather than facts have their fingers on the pulse of contemporary political debate.

I'd throw Rush Limbaugh into the mix as well; others, I'm sure, have their own candidates. The point is that our political culture right now is poisonous—it's dominated by lies and name-calling. Americans claim in polls that they're tired of the politics of personal destruction, yet the success of Coulter, Moore, and the like suggests exactly the opposite. Apparently, large numbers of us like it that way. In such a climate, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept that political differences can be the result of good-faith differences of opinion, or to meet political opponents half-way through compromise.

As a former history graduate student who focused on the political history of the American Revolution and early national periods, I have no illusion that our national political culture ever operated consistently at a principled, intellectual level. (Those who would point to Hamilton's and Madison's Federalist essays, which originally ran in New York newspapers, should take a look at what else the newspapers were running at the same time). That doesn't make today's political culture any more palatable. As long as political discourse is based on demonstrable lies and name-calling, people quite understandably won't take seriously the ideas of their ideological opponents, and our politics will continue to be a mess.

Sunday, July 14

Site Update

Charles Kuffner, with whom I have a running exchange on competitive balance in professional sports (on which more tomorrow), recently wrote:

The blogroll is pretty big these days, which reflects a growing number of quality blogs out there. There was a time (you know, back in the Good Old Days of blogging) when you could read just about anyone who was worth your time to read. Anyone who tries to do that now is either unemployed or soon to become unemployed.

There are a number of sites I've wanted to add to the blogroll, including some that have linked to me. But it's now reached the point where I can't possibly look at every listed site every day. To maintain the list's utility, I've subdivided it further. I hope that those who are not listed as "daily reads" won't take offense—I do check every listed blog on a fairly regular basis.

(I should note that, while Martin Devon has a Jeff Cooper on his blogroll, it's not me).

Wine Index

Dave Trowbridge, whose blog I mentioned the other day in my post about the recent protests in Iran, wrote to me to say that he enjoyed my wine posts but that he was frustrated by the absence of a convenient way to find them. I've now added an index over to the left, which should work as long as Blogger's archives are working correctly (unfortunately, that isn't very often these days). I created the index manually; if anyone has an idea on how to automate the process, please let me know.

Wine of the Week

Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz 1990
In 1992, after I finished my first judicial clerkship and took the bar exam, I set out for an extended vacation in Australia. One of the things I most looked forward to doing was learning more about Australian wines. By that point, I'd been enthusiastic about wine for about two years, and I'd consumed vast quantities of Rosemount Shiraz and Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet—two inexpensive yet quite tasty Australian reds (the current releases still are). Both Rosemount and Penfolds were pretty big producers, though—Penfolds especially. And I knew that there were excellent smaller winemakers throughout Australia. So over the course of a month I spent several days tasting my way through the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the Yarra Valley in Victoria, and the Barossa Valley in South Australia. I also stopped in at a wine shop in the Melbourne suburbs, and there I first encountered the wines of Jasper Hill.

On my way back from Australia, I brought with me as many bottles as I could carry (I declared them; the customs agent was accommodating). Among the nine or so that I brought back was a half-bottle of 1990 Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz. I then kept it for a decade, as no occasion seemed appropriate for opening it. But on a recent evening, when my wife decided not to have wine with dinner, I dug through my half-bottles, came across it, and figured I'd better drink it before it was too late.

Just in time, I think. The wine still has a relatively youthful appearance, deep ruby with only the faintest hint of ambering at the rim. And the aromas remain pure shiraz, all plum and blackberry and spice. The wine has nice mouthfeel—although the tannins remain prominent, there's sufficient fruit to keep them in balance. And the flavors remain excellent—Katherine, on sampling from my glass, changed her mind about having wine with dinner. There's a troubling note of acidity to the peppery swell on the midpalate, though, that makes me wonder how much longer the wine would have remained enjoyable.

As far as I know, Jasper Hill was not available in the US when I brought this half-bottle back with me. In the decade since, a lot has changed; the wine is now imported into the US, and while it certainly doesn't appear in every wine shop, it can be found (I can vouch for this seller, which has the 2000 release). Regrettably, that's not all that's changed. In 1992, I paid A$10 (about US$7.40) for a 375 ml bottle of the 1990 Georgia's Paddock; at that time, the 1991 had just come on the market for A$19 (about US$14). Since then, Australian wines have grown enormously in popularity, and as a result far more are imported. But with the increased availability has come an increase in price. Unlike the 1990, the 2000 Georgia's Paddock may not require a trip to Australia. But it will set the buyer back $54 or so. Ouch!