The End Of The Beginning

The essential struggle in America … will be between city men and yokels.
The yokels hang on because the old apportionments give them unfair advantages. …
But that can’t last.
—H.L. Mencken. 23 July 1928.

 

“It’s as if,” the American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998, “the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time, as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.” Penn State literature professor Michael Bérubé sneered at Rorty at the time, writing that Rorty’s problem is that he “construes leftist thought as a zero-sum game,” as if somehow

the United States would have passed a national health-care plan, implemented a family-leave policy, and abolished ‘right to work’ laws if only … left-liberals in the humanities hadn’t been wasting our time writing books on cultural hybridity and popular music.

Bérubé then essentially asked Rorty, “where’s the evidence?”—knowing, of course, that it is impossible to prove a counterfactual, i.e. what didn’t happen. But even in 1998, there was evidence to think that Rorty was not wrong: that, by focusing on discrimination rather than on inequality, “left-liberals” have, as Rorty accused then, effectively “collaborated with the Right.” Take, for example, what are called “majority-minority districts,” which are designed to increase minority representation, and thus combat “stigma”—but have the effect of harming minorities.

A “majority-minority district,” according to Ballotpedia, “is a district in which a minority group or groups comprise a majority of the district’s total population.” They were created in response to Section Two of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited drawing legislative districts in a fashion that would “improperly dilute minorities’ voting power.”  Proponents of their use maintain that they are necessary in order to prohibit what’s sometimes called “cracking,” or diluting a constituency so as to ensure that it is not a majority in any one district. It’s also claimed that “majority-minority” districts are the only way to ensure minority representation in the state legislatures and Congress—and while that may or may not be true, it is certainly true that after drawing such districts there were more minority members of Congress than there were before: according to the Congressional Research Service, prior to 1969 (four years after passage) there were less than ten black members of Congress, a number that then grew until, after the 106th Congress (1999-01), there have consistently been between 39 and 44 African-American members of Congress. Unfortunately, while that may have been good for individual representatives, it may not be all that great for their constituents.

That’s because while “majority-minority” districts may increase the number of black and minority congressmen and women, they may also decrease the total numbers of Democrats in Congress. As The Atlantic put the point in 2013: after the redistricting process following the Census of 1990, the “drawing of majority-minority districts not only elected more minorities, it also had the effect of bleeding minority voters out of all the surrounding districts”—making them virtually impregnably Republican. In 2012, for instance, Barack Obama won 44 Congressional districts by more than 50 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney won only eight districts by such a large percentage. Figures like these could seem overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats, of course—until it is realized that, by winning congressional seats by such huge margins in some districts, Democrats are effectively losing votes in others.

That’s why—despite the fact that he lost the popular vote—in 2012 Romney’s party won 226 of 435 Congressional districts, while Obama’s party won 209. In this past election, as I’ve mention in past posts, Republicans won 55% of the seats (241) despite getting 49.9% of the vote, while Democrats won 44% of the seats despite getting 47.3% of the vote. That might not seem like a large difference, but it is suggestive when these percentages always point in a single direction: going back to 1994, the year of the “Contract With America,” Republicans have consistently outperformed their share of the popular vote, while Democrats have consistently underperformed theirs.

From the perspective of the Republican party, that’s just jake, despite being—according to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP in North Carolina—due to “an intentional and cynical use of race.” Whatever the ethics of the thing, it’s certainly had major results. “In 1949,” as Ari Berman pointed out in The Nation not long ago, “white Democrats controlled 103 of 105 House seats in the former Confederacy,” while the last white Southern congressman not named Steve Cohen exited the House in 2014. Considered all together, then, as “majority-minority districts” have increased, the body of Southern congressmen (and women) has become like an Oreo: a thin surface of brown Democrats on the outside, thickly white and Republican on the inside—and nothing but empty calories.

Nate Silver, to be sure, discounted all this worry as so much ado about nothing in 2013: “most people,” he wrote then, “are putting too much weight on gerrymandering and not enough on geography.” In other words, “minority populations, especially African-Americans, tend to be highly concentrated in certain geographic areas,” so much so that it would a Herculean task “not to create overwhelmingly minority (and Democratic) districts on the South Side of Chicago, in the Bronx or in parts of Los Angeles or South Texas.” Furthermore, even if that could be accomplished such districts would violate “nonpartisan redistricting principles like compactness and contiguity.” But while Silver is right on the narrow ground he contests, it merely begs the question: why should geography have anything to do with voting? Silver’s position essentially ensures that African-American and other minority votes count for less. “Majority minority districts” imply that minority votes do not have as much effect on policy as votes in other kinds of districts: they create, as if the United States were some corporation with common and preferred shares, two kinds of votes.

Like discussions about, for example, the Electoral College—in which a vote in Wyoming is much more valuable than one in California—Silver’s position in other words implies that minority votes will remain less valuable than other votes because a vote in a “majority-minority” district will have less probability of electing a congressperson who is a member of a majority in Congress. What does it matter to African-Americans if one of their number is elected to Congress, if Congress can do nothing for them?  To Silver, there isn’t any issue with majority-minority districts because they reflect their underlying proportions of people—but what matters is whether whoever’s elected can get policies that benefit them.

Right here, in other words, we get to the heart of the dispute between the deceased Rorty and his former student Bérubé: the difference between procedural and substantive justice. To some left-liberal types like Michael Bérubé, that might appear just swell: to coders in the Valley (represented by California’s 17th, the only majority-Asian district in the continental United States) or cultural-studies theorists in Boston, what might be important is simply the numbers of minority representatives, not the ability to pass a legislative agenda that’s fair for all Americans. It all might seem like no skin off their nose. (More ominously, it conceivably might even be in their economic interests: the humanities and the arts after all are intellectually well-equipped for a politics of appearances—but much less so for a politics of substance.) But ultimately this also affects them, and for a similar reason: urban professionals are, after all, urban—which means that their votes are, like majority-minority districts, similarly concentrated.

“Urban Democrat House members”—as The Atlantic also noted in 2013—“win with huge majorities, but winning a district with 80 percent doesn’t help the party gain any more seats than winning with 60 percent.” As Silver put the same point, “white voters in cities with high minority populations tend to be quite liberal, yielding more redundancy for Democrats.” Although these percentages might appear heartening to some of those within such districts, they ought to be deeply worrying: individual votes are not translating into actual political power. The more geographically concentrated Democrats are the less and less capable their party becomes of accomplishing its goals. While winning individual races by huge margins might be satisfying to some, no one cares about running up the score in a junior varsity game.

What “left-liberal” types ought to be contesting, in other words, isn’t whether Congress has enough black and other minority people in it, but instead the ridiculous, anachronistic idea that voting power should be tied to geography. “People, not land or trees or pastures vote,” Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren wrote in 1964; in that case, Wesberry v. Sanders, the Supreme Court ruled that, as much as possible, “one man’s vote in a Congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.” By shifting discussion to procedural issues of identity and stigma, “majority-minority districts” obscure that much more substantive question of power. Like some gaggle of left-wing Roy Cohns, people like Michael Bérubé want to talk about who people are. His opponents ought to reply by saying they’re interested in what people could be—and building a real road to get there.

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An Unfair Game

The sheer quantity of brain power that hurled itself voluntarily and quixotically into the search for new baseball knowledge was either exhilarating or depressing, depending on how you felt about baseball.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

“Today, in sports,” wrote James Surowiecki in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, “what you are is what you make yourself into”—unlike forty or fifty years ago, nearly all elite-level athletes have a tremendous entourage of dietitians, strength coaches, skill coaches, and mental coaches to help them do their jobs. But not just athletes: at the team level, coaches and scouts have learned to use data both to recruit the best players and turn that talent into successful strategies. Surowiecki notes for instance that when sports columnist Mark Montieth went back and looked at old NBA games from the 1950s and 60s, he found that NBA coaches at the time “hadn’t yet come up with offenses sophisticated enough to create what are considered good shots today.” That improvement, however, is not limited to sports: Surowiecki also notes that in fields as varied as chess and classical music, airline safety to small-unit infantry tactics, the same basic sorts of techniques have greatly improved performance. What “underlies all these performance revolutions,” Surowiecki says, “is captured by the Japanese term kaizen, or continuous improvement”—that is, the careful analysis of technique. Still, what is more curious about the fact that so many disparate fields have been improved by kaizen-type innovations is not that they can be applied so variously, but that they have not been applied to many other fields: among them, Surowiecki lists medicine and education. Yet the field that might be ripest for the advent of kaizen—and with the greatest payoff for Americans, even greater than the fact that lemon cars are for the most part a thing of the past—is politics.

To be sure, politics doesn’t lend itself particularly well to training in a wind tunnel, as the top-level cyclists Surowiecki discusses do. Nor are politics likely to be improved especially by ensuring, like the Portland Trailblazers do, that everyone in government gets enough rest, or that they eat correctly—although one imagines that in the case of several politicians, the latter might greatly improve their performance. But while the “taking care of the talent” side of the equation might not, in the field of politics, be the most efficient use of resources, certainly the kinds of techniques that have helped teams improve their strategies just might. For example, in baseball, examining statistical evidence for signs of how better to defend against a particular batter has become wildly more popular in recent years—and baseball’s use of that strategy has certain obvious applications to American politics.

That team-level strategy is the “infield shift,” the technique whereby fielders are positioned on the field in unusual structures in order to take account of a particular batter’s tendencies. If, for example, a particular player tends to hit the ball to the left side of the field—a tendency readily observable in this age of advanced statistical analysis in the post-Moneyball era—teams might move the second baseman (on the right side of the infield) to behind second base, or even further left, just as to have an extra fielder where the batter tends to place his hits. According to the Los Angeles Times, the use of the “infield shift” has become far greater than it ever has: the “number of shifts,” the Times’ Zach Helfand wrote last year, “has nearly doubled nearly every year since 2011, from 2,357 to 13,298 last year.” This past season (2015), the use of shifts had exploded again, so that there were 10,262 uses of a shift “by the All-Star break,” Helfand reported. The use of shifts is growing at such an exponential rate, of course, because they work: the “strategy saved 190 runs in the first half this (2015) season, according to estimates from Baseball Info Solutions,” Helfand says. The idea makes intuitive sense: putting players where they are not needed is an inefficient use of a team’s resources.

The infield shift is a strategy, as it happens, that one of the greatest of America’s Supreme Court justices, Earl Warren, would have approved of—because he, in effect, directed the greatest infield shift of all time. About the line of cases now known as the “apportionment cases,” the former Chief Justice wrote that, despite having presided over such famous cases as Brown v. Board of Education (the case that desegregated American schools) or Miranda v. Arizona (which ensured that defendants would be represented by counsel), he was most proud of his role in these cases, which took on the fact that the “legislatures of more than forty states were so unbalanced as to give people in certain parts of them vastly greater voting representation than in others.” In the first of that line, Baker v. Carr, the facts were that whereas the population of the state of Tennessee had grown from 487,380 to 2,092,891 since 1900, and that said population had not been distributed evenly throughout the state but instead was concentrated in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, still Tennessee had not reapportioned its legislature since 1901. This, said Warren, was ridiculous: in effect, Tennessee’s legislature was not only not shifted, but it was wrongly shifted. If the people of Tennessee were a right-handed pull-hitter (i.e., one that tends to hit to the left side of the field), in other words, Tennessee’s legislature had the second baseman, the shortstop, and the third baseman on the right side of the field—i.e., toward first base, not third.

“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” Warren wrote for a later “apportionment case,” Reynolds v. Sims (about Alabama’s legislature, which was, like Tennessee’s, also wildly malapportioned). What Warren was saying was that legislators ought to be where the constituents are—much as baseball fielders ought to be where the ball is likely to be hit. In Reynolds, the Alabama legislature wasn’t: because the Alabama Constitution provided that the state senate would be composed of one senator from each Alabama county, some senate districts had voting populations as much as 41 times that of the least populated. Warren’s work remedied that vast disparity: as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Baker, Reynolds, and the other cases in the “apportionment” line, nearly every state legislature in the United States was forced to redraw boundaries and, in general, make sure the legislators were where the people are.

Of course, it might be noted that the apportionment cases were decided more than fifty years ago, and that the injustices they addressed have now all been corrected. Yet, it is not merely American state legislatures that were badly misaligned with the American population. After all, if the state senate of Alabama was badly malapportioned through much of the twentieth century and before, it is also true that the Senate of the United States continues to be malapportioned today: if the difference between Alabama’s least populated county and its most in the early 1960s was more than 40 times, the difference between the number of voters in Wyoming, the least populated American state, and California, the most, is now more than 60 times—and yet each state has precisely the same number of senators in the U.S. Senate. These differences, much like infield shifts, have consequences: in such books as Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, political scientists like Frances E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer have demonstrated that, for example, “less populous states consistently receive more federal funding than states with more people.” Putting legislators where the people aren’t, in other words, has much the same effect as not shifting a baseball team’s infield: it allows money, and the other goods directed by a legislature, to flow—like hits—in directions that it wouldn’t were there fielders, or legislators, in place to redirect those flows.

To say that moving America’s legislature around would have an instantaneously positive effect on American life, of course, is likely to overstate the effect such a move might make: some batters in the major leagues, like Albert Pujols, have been able to overcome the effects of an infield shift. (Pujols, it seems, bats 28 points higher when a shift is on than when it isn’t, Zach Helfand reported.) Yet, teams still use the shift on Pujols—on the theory, apparently, that even though Pujols might overall bat better, still it is unlikely that he can keep it up, first, and second that on the occasions that he misses “hitting the gaps,” a fielder will be there.

Similarly, although it might be so that, as Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois argued in the aftermath of 1964’s Reynolds, “the forces of our national life are not brought to bear on public questions solely in proportion to the weight of numbers,” the forces behind such examples as Billy Beane’s Oakland As teams—assembled largely on the weight of the statistics put up by the players—or Japanese car companies—which redesigned workspaces, Surowiecki says, “so workers didn’t have to waste time twisting and turning to reach their tools”—beg to differ: although not every question can be solved by the application of kaizen-like techniques, surely a number of them can.

Among them, it may be, is gun-control legislation, which has continually been held up by structural features of the American Congress that have much to do with malapportionment. Surely, in other words, with regard to gun policy it matters that the Senate is heavily stacked in favor of mostly-rural states. Were it not, it is much easier to imagine the United States having a gun policy much more in line with that of other industrialized democracies. Which, in the light of incidents like the recent shooting deaths in Orlando, is to shine a new light on an old baseball phrase.

That phrase?

“Hit ’em where they ain’t.”

The Oldest Mistake

Monte Ward traded [Willie] Keeler away for almost nothing because … he made the oldest mistake in management: he focused on what the player couldn’t do, rather than on what he could.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

 

 

What does an American “leftist” look like? According to academics and the inhabitants of Brooklyn and its spiritual suburbs, there are means of tribal recognition: unusual hair or jewelry; a mode of dress either strikingly old-fashioned or futuristic; peculiar eyeglasses, shoes, or other accessories. There’s a deep concern about food, particularly that such food be the product of as small, and preferably foreign, an operation as possible—despite a concomitant enmity of global warming. Their subject of study at college was at minimum one of the humanities, and possibly self-designed. If they are fans of sports at all, it is either extremely obscure, obscenely technical, and does not involve a ball—think bicycle racing—or it is soccer. And so on. Yet, while each of us has exactly a picture of such a person in mind—probably you know at least a few, or are one yourself—that is not what a real American leftist looks like at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In reality, a person of the actual left today drinks macro-, not micro-, brews, studied computer science or some other such discipline at university, and—above all—is a fan of either baseball or football. And why is that? Because such a person understands statistics intuitively—and the great American political battle of the twenty-first century will be led by the followers of Strabo, not Pyrrho.

Each of those two men were Greeks: the one, a geographer, the other a philosopher—the latter often credited with being one of the first “Westerners” to visit India. “Nothing really exists,” Pyrrho reportedly held, “but human life is governed by convention”—a philosophy very like that of the current American “cultural left,” governed as it is by the notion, as put by American literary critic Stanley Fish, that “norms and standards and rules … are in every instance a function or extension of history, convention, and local practice.” Arguably, most of the “political” work of the American academy over the past several generations has been done under that rubric: as Fish and others have admitted in recent years, it’s only by acceding to some version of that doctrine that anyone can work as an American academic in the humanities these days.

Yet while “official” leftism has prospered in the academy under a Pyrrhonian rose, in the meantime enterprises like fantasy football and above all, sabermetrics, have expanded as a matter of “entertainment.” But what an odd form of relaxation! It’s an bizarre kind of escapism that requires a familiarity with both acronyms and the formulas used to compute them: WAR, OPS, DIPS, and above all (with a nod to Greek antecedents), the “Pythagorean expectation.” Yet the work on these matters has, mainly, been undertaken as a purely amateur endeavor—Bill James spent decades putting out his baseball work without any remuneration, until finally being hired latterly by the Boston Red Sox in 2003 (the same year that Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a book about how the Oakland A’s were using methods pioneered by James and his disciples). Still, all of these various methods of computing the value of both a player and a team have a perhaps-unintended effect: that of training the mind in the principle of Greek geographer, Strabo.

“It is proper to derive our explanations from things which are obvious,” Strabo wrote two thousand years ago, in a line that would later be adopted by the Englishman who constructed geology, Charles Lyell. In Lyell’s Principles of Geology (which largely founded the field) Lyell held—in contrast to the mysteriousness of Pyrrho—that the causes of things are likely to those already around us, and not due to unique, unrepeatable events. Similarly, sabermetricians—as opposed to the old-school scouts depicted in the film version of Moneyball—judge players based on their performance on the field, not on their nebulous “promise” or “intangibles.” (In Moneyball scouts were said to judge players on such qualities as the relative attractiveness of their girlfriends, which was said to signify the player’s own confidence in his ability.) Sabermetricians disregard such “methods” of analysis in favor of examination of the acts performed by the player as recorded by statistics.

Why, however, would that methodological commitment lead sabermetricians to be politically “liberal”—or for that matter, why would it lead in a political direction at all? The answer to the latter question is, I suspect, inevitable: sabermetrics, after all, is a discipline well-suited for the purpose of discovering how to run a professional sports team—and in its broadest sense, managing organizations simply is what “politics” is. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for that reason, defined politics as a “practical science”—as the discipline of organizing human beings for particular purposes. It seems inevitable then that at least some people who have spent time wondering about, say, how to organize a baseball team most effectively might turn their imaginations towards some other end.

Still, even were that so, why “liberalism,” however that is defined, as opposed to some other kind political philosophy? Going by anecdotal evidence, after all, the most popular such doctrine among sports fans might be libertarianism. Yet, beside the fact that libertarianism is the philosophy of twelve-year-old boys (not necessarily a knockdown argument against its success), it seems to me that anyone following the methods of sabermetrics will be led towards positions usually called “liberal” in today’s America because from that sabermetrical, Strabonian perspective, certain key features of the American system will nearly instantly jump out.

The first of those features will be that, as it now stands, the American system is designed in a fashion contrary to the first principle of sabermetrical analysis: the Pythagorean expectation. As Charles Hofacker described it in a 1983 article for Baseball Analyst, the “Pythagorean equation was devised by Bill James to predict winning percentage from … the critical difference between runs that [a team] scores and runs that it allows.” By comparing these numbers—the ratio of a team’s runs scored and runs allowed versus the team’s actual winning percentage—James found that a rough approximation of a team’s real value could be determined: generally, a large difference between those two sets of numbers means that something fluky is happening.

If a team scores a lot of runs while also preventing its opponents from scoring, in other words, and yet somehow isn’t winning as many games as those numbers would suggest, then that suggests that that team is either tremendously unlucky or there is some hidden factor preventing success. Maybe, for instance, that team is scoring most of its runs at home because its home field is particularly friendly to the type of hitters the team has … and so forth. A disparity between runs scored/runs allowed and actual winning percentage, in short, compels further investigation.

Weirdly however the American system regularly produces similar disparities—and yet while, in the case of a baseball team, that would set off alerts for a sabermetrician, no such alarms are set off in the case of the so-called “official” American left, which apparently has resigned itself to the seemingly inevitable. In fact, instead of being the subject of curiosity and even alarm, many of the features of the U.S. constitution, like the Senate and the Electoral College—not to speak of the Supreme Court itself—are expressly designed to thwart what Chief Justice Earl Warren said was “the clear and strong command of our Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause”: the idea that “Legislators represent people … [and] are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” Whereas a professional baseball team, in the post-James era, would be remiss if it were to ignore a difference between its ratio of runs scored and allowed and its games won and lost, under the American political system the difference between the will of the electorate as expressed by votes cast and the actual results of that system as expressed by legislation passed is not only ignored, but actively encouraged.

“The existence of the United States Senate”—for example wrote Justice Harlan in his dissent to the 1962 case of Baker v. Carr—“is proof enough” that “those who have the responsibility for devising a system of representation may permissibly consider that factors other than bare numbers should be taken into account.” That is, the existence of the U.S. Senate, which sends two senators from each state regardless of each state’s population, is support enough for those who believe—as the American “cultural left” does—in the importance of factors like “history” or the like in political decisions, as opposed to, say, the will of the American voters as expressed by the tally of all American votes.

As Jonathan Cohn remarked in The New Republic not long ago, in the Senate “predominantly rural, thinly populated states like Arkansas and North Dakota have the exact same representation as more urban, densely populated states like California and New York”—meaning that voters in those rural states have more effective political power than voters in the urban ones do. In sum, the Senate is, as Cohn says, one of Constitution’s “levers for thwarting the majority.” Or to put it in sabermetrical terms, it is a means of hiding a severe disconnect in America’s Pythagorean expectation.

Some will defend that disconnect, as Justice Harlan did over fifty years ago, on the grounds of terms familiar to the “cultural left”: that of “history” and “local practice” and so forth. In other words, that is how the Constitution originally constructed the American state. Yet, attempting (in Cohn’s words) to “prevent majorities from having the power to determine election outcomes” is a dangerous undertaking; as the Atlantic’s Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote recently about certain actions taken by the Republican party designed to discourage voting, to “see the only other major political party in the country effectively giving up on convincing voters, and instead embarking on a strategy of disenfranchisement, is a bad sign for American democracy.” In baseball, the sabermetricians know, a team with a high difference between its “Pythagorean expectation” and its win-loss record will usually “snap back” to the mean. In politics, as everyone since before Aristotle has known, such a “snap back” is usually a bit more costly than, say, the price of a new pitcher—which is to say that, if you see any American revolutionaries around you right now, he or she is likely wearing, not a poncho or a black turtleneck, but an Oakland A’s hat.