Monday, June 23, 2008

Hacks and wonks

(The news about George Carlin's death, strangely enough, reminded of this post I wanted to make.)

It tickles me to learn that Nate Silver, a top sabermetrician (aka baseball stats nerd) whom I’ve been reading for several years now in Baseball Prospectus, is making a name as a politics blogger. I’d been thinking, hmm, where have I heard that name before? Newsweek magazine clued me in.

I could go on at stultifying length on the lessons of baseball analysis that can be applied to other walks of life. Trying to be brief: There are these rarified arenas of society that are daydream fuel for great swaths of Americans, especially men. Politics is one, sports is another, financial markets are a third I’m sure--supremely competitive, highly remunerative, high-profile businesses. Among those who actually succeed, who ascend to the highest levels of these fields, the effect of egos and status is often to create a bubble of privilege and self-congratulation, the corrosive arrogance of insiderdom.

Yet all of these fields are quite amenable to wonkery, that is, understandable to any interested lay person with brains and diligence. (Also, a little training in the use of statistics never hurt.)

It's all too tempting to divide the political universe into two groups, Hacks and Wonks. To be sure, hacks and wonks are mutually dependent, and arguably the greatest political figures combine the best of hack and wonk. But the last generation or so of American politics, the Dubya years especially, have been marked by a rising tide of empty hackdom. Maybe it's just that television is an inherently hackish medium, and the Net is inherently wonkish. Anyway, it's high time for wonks with DIY attitude to push aside the more hackish hacks. Is that clear enough?

A longtime hero of mine, or maybe anti-hero is a better term, is Bill James, the baseball writer and patron saint of sabermetrics, a guy from the sticks with no qualifications or pedigree in baseball (or journalism either), who, beginning in the late 1970s, transformed the baseball business with the patient, persistent application of logic and evidence. It helped that he took a certain gusto in puncturing myths and pretensions. For me the example of Bill James looms in the background when I survey the blogosphere. Baseball was a relatively easy nut to crack (for many years now, reams of data about it have been published in each day's newspaper) but the proliferation of information in the Internet Age is causing many inside rackets to bust open. It can be a beautiful thing.

George Carlin, 1937-2008

I can't claim to have been a big fan. I never owned any of his albums or books. He was one of those show-biz figures I liked and enjoyed bumping into, on the Tonight Show or where have you. Truthfully, I'll have a similar feeling of sadness when Cheech and/or Chong passes away, though I recognize that Carlin was a more important figure.

I liked knowing he was around, and I rooted for him in his public struggles with substance abuse. Actually, one of my stronger memories of him, and I don't know if this was a stand-up bit or something I read in an interview with him, is his description of the allure of the rituals of drug use: getting out the paraphernalia, cutting up the cocaine or et. al. I was never a heavy drug user, but that resonated with me, that there were a number of things besides the high that reinforce people's behavior with drugs.

The other thing I remember best about Carlin was his routine comparing baseball and football. As well as being funny, it was precisely on target, and it opened a little window into the American psyche. I'm more of a sports fan than a aficionado of stand-up comedy, but here is where Carlin's wide ranging observations intersected with my parochial interests and rang my bell. I bet a lot of casual comedy fans were similarly touched, maybe shaken up, by George Carlin.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hillary to pack it in?

Reports are that Hillary Clinton is going to suspend her campaign after the polls close this evening in Montana and South Dakota.

This Jeff Greenfield piece from this afternoon, looking back on the Clinton-Obama clash, declares that Hillary got caught in a time warp. I agree, but I would describe the time warp quite differently. To Greenfield, it has to do with convention fights: since 1984, the political class has figured out that convention fights are to be avoided at all costs. That's why the superdels are refusing to swing Hillary's way during her late charge. Defying the pledged delegate math would guarantee the dreaded primetime free-for-all in Denver.

Well, sure. But: To me the point is less that we would have a floor fight at the convention, than that the aggrieved party would be the Netroots. Sorry, I don't like that word, but substitute the word of your liking for the youngish Web-wired Democratic enthusiasts whose dollars have propelled Obama and whose spirit and attitude animate his campaign. The race evolved into one where Clinton represented the pre-Netroots era (fat cat donors, old media, hawkishness for its own sake) while Obama represents the Netroots era (lots of small donors, hip to new media, multilateralism). The Netroots is where the greatest energy is. It's arguable which side is the better bet for a win in 2008, maybe it's a toss-up, but the Netroots side holds a chance at a political transformation to last a decade or more.

So: No Pissing Off the Netroots.

I may have to eat these words, but my hope is that in the end, the long Democratic campaign will not have damaged Obama, but may turn out to have helped him. He and Hillary have been at center stage all spring, both have shown impressive mettle, even chutzpah, and John McCain (maybe due to lack of ready cash) has been a bit on the sidelines. The national conversation has been about the Democrats; they will have an opportunity to define the election; the fundamentals are much in their favor.

I could well be wrong; Clinton's wins in big states like OH and PA showed Obama's vulnerability. (Give Clinton credit, she really did put on a late charge, and in a circa-1984 environment, the momentum shift would have mattered.) And the protests at the Rules Committee meeting on Saturday (where the Florida-Michigan half-vote compromise was passed) were disturbing, and listening to NPR's Diane Rehm Show on Monday morning confirmed, despite my incredulity, that there are in fact people who compare the Florida-Michigan deal to the 3/5ths compromise of the antebellum era, and who swear they will defect to McCain over the shafting Senator Clinton got.

My view of the Florida-Michigan fight is reflected here. Clinton's position was absurd. The essential problem is that Clinton and her camp did not behave honorably. There was a handshake deal among all the candidates over how to handle Florida and Michigan. When it became advantageous to welsh on the deal, the Clintons welshed. Next time lawyers and contracts will have to be involved on the front end. This is the dark side of the Baby Huey in-it-to-win-it ethos that the Clintons have.

Hillary partisans threatening to defect to McCain? I think we have to run that risk. Balance that against the adrenaline shot the GOP would get if they were running against Hillary, plus the risk of the Netroots and African-Americans sitting it out in November.

See Josh Marshall about Bill Clinton and his time warp. Also, Michelle Cottle sympathizes with the denizens of Hillaryland this evening.