Is the U.S. an Oligarchy?

I came across something the other day that isn’t particularly noteworthy on its own, but serves as a useful example of a common journalistic malpractice. Plus, it’s from the Washington Times, so it presents an opportunity to abuse a non-MSM source while getting in on the ground floor of the predictable internet arguments over the subject matter of the article.

The article in question bears the arresting headline, America is an oligarchy, not a democracy or republic, university study finds, which seems like pretty good click-bait for an article that doesn’t contain a word about a single Kardashian. Now, for those of you without a lot of time to spare, I’ll tell you right now that this “study” finds no such thing, so you can move along now and sleep comfortably. But there’s quite a bit to unpack from this silly article.

First, there’s really no such thing as a “university study”, despite the fact that newspapers constantly use this term. What this thing is, and what all such “studies” are, is a humble little academic paper written by two guys with jobs as professors at some universities. It gets worse in the main body of the article, where this paper is pimped as a “study jointly conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities.” The casual reader would be nearly blameless in inferring that high-ranking officials at those two schools had decided to order members of their faculties to drop everything and get to work studying the state of the American polity. But that’s a laughably incorrect notion of academic life, where in reality profs are rewarded for grabbing some “external funding” for their research. The subject matter is of no particular interest to university officials unless it generates a lot of bad publicity. The only things that really matter to them about research are the money kicked in to the university’s general slush fund and the number of publications the authors can squeeze out of their projects.

OK, what about the research that underlies the bold claim of the headline?  The basic argument is that organized interest groups exert some degree of influence on the US government. Oh, and business lobbying is aimed at increasing business profits. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. Pretty much stuff that Marxists and libertarians agree on, although they differ radically on the implication of this for the optimal size and scope of government.

So where does the “oligarchy” stuff come from? The actual “study” uses the term only in reference to work by another Northwestern political scientist, Jeffrey Winters, who–as far as I can tell–argues that concentrated wealth is the same thing as concentrated political power. Wealth inequality in the US therefore means oligarchy because money buys influence over policy. You can get a pretty good idea of Winters’ views from his recent post at HuffPo.

Of course, this argument is nothing more than underwear-gnome logic without specifics about the influence that the wealthy exert over policy. Did they install their fellow rich guy Mitt Romney as president? Did they kill Obamacare? Going back a few decades, when the oligarchs gave us President Nixon, why did they allow him to sign the laws creating the EPA and OSHA?

No, Prof. Winters isn’t so foolhardy as to claim that oligarchs rule the US in the way that they run, say, Russia. Instead, our unambitious oligarchs largely concern themselves with lowering the top income-tax rate. Which is to say, they’ve had to deploy all their political might to reducing the amount of their wealth voted away from them. This has got to be the most sorry-ass oligarchy ever.

The argument made by Winters’ colleagues, in the study that is the subject of the WashTimes article, is a bit different. They look at opinion survey data for the US and contrast the for/against views for an unspecified group of policy proposals, distinguishing between the responses of the top 10% of income earners and those of “average Americans”. They then attempt to estimate the responsiveness of each actual policy outcome to the preferences of these respondent groups (plus some lobbying groups). Unfortunately for the authors, the policy views of “elites” and average Joes in the US are highly correlated (to the tune of a .94 correlation coefficient, where 1.0 represents exact conformity, 0 represents complete independence, and -1 represents completely opposing views). So the main thing to be learned from their study is that there’s hardly any class warfare at all in the US.

But that’s not what the two scholars in question concluded. Being determined to sort out the differential influence of the people being taxed heavily relative to those being taxed lightly, they proceeded to massage their data in the name of eliminating “measurement error”. I’m not competent to evaluate their procedure–and only partly because they do not describe it in this study, but refer the diligent reader to a separate paper–so I’ll only report that the “cleaned” data are used to find that the opinions of ordinary Americans have no influence on public policy.

Now, one important thing to bear in mind is that merely fitting a statistical model like this and getting some estimated effects of assorted variables doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about the importance of the results. It’s the “predictive” power of the model that tells us how important it is, and this paper never discusses that. (One type of measure of this is reported, and it’s very small, but we’re not told which of the several possible measures it represents.) In fact, this study doesn’t even contain the customary table reporting the simple summary statistics for its sample. So, for example, we aren’t told what percentage of the 1,779 “policy proposals” in question were actually enacted. This is pretty important to know in order to assess the statistical model. In a world where you get 50% “positives” and 50% “negatives”, a model that can predict positive outcomes 75% of the time is pretty good. On the other hand, if only 5% of the outcomes are positive, there’s not much to explain.

Furthermore, real-world policy outcomes aren’t binary, which means that the data used in this study contain an unknown degree of subjective opinion. Suppose, for example, people are asked if they favor or oppose an increase in the top income-tax rate, and that high-income earners oppose it while average earners favor it. Also suppose that there are three options considered by Congress: Raise the top rate by 10%, raise it by 5%, and leave it unchanged. If what passes is a 5% increase, should that be classified as a “win” for the fat cats or for the hoi polloi? And that’s a simple case. Suppose what happens is that the top rate is increased but the income threshold for being in the top bracket is also increased? How would you code that? And, given that a lot of policies are rolled up into a single mess of an omnibus bill, what are we to make of the assorted logrolling deals that were made to get the ultimate legislation passed?

I don’t mean to say that this study is rubbish, but it does seem awfully weak to serve as the basis for the view that the US is an oligarchy.  What I do mean to say is that the Washington Times report on this study is indeed rubbish, and not at all unrepresentative of MSM summaries of social-science research.

Oh, plus this: The Constitution is supposed to establish a republic, not a simple democracy that quickly passes laws that embody the weakly held, indifferently thought-out views of a simple majority. I can’t believe that I have to make that point in writing about a study by a political scientist, but then the other author is a sociologist.


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Today in Ukraine

This happened.


Ukraine anti-tank weapons

Ukrainian anti-tank weapons

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Who Belongs in the Hall of Fame?

The ballots have been sent out to the sportswriters who are eligible to vote on membership in baseball’s Hall of Fame, and while the big issue in last year’s voting (steroids) was debated and resolved pretty clearly (strong suspicion of juicing is a solid reason for non-support), the issue that will result in the biggest arguments this year doesn’t seem to be widely recognized. That issue is post-season performance.

The historical criteria for “automatic” HoF membership were pretty simple: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, or (for pitchers) 300 wins. Whatever the merits of these criteria, they all had one thing in common: they represented a high standard of performance maintained over a long period of time. This reflected well the nature of the game from its early days through the 1960s: the daily grind of a 154- or 162-game season, in which every game counted equally toward the fundamental goal of finishing the season with the most victories in the league. The prize for this was something called “the pennant,” and if Pop Fisher (in The Natural) is to be believed, winning it was the truly Big Deal, with the World Series a bit of icing on the cake:

I wanted to win that pennant worse than I wanted any goddamned thing in my life. You’d think I could just this once, wouldn’t you? I didn’t care nothing about the Series. Win or lose, I would have been satisfied.

All that changed in 1969, when baseball expanded to 12 teams in each league. With so many teams in a single pennant race, the odds were that most teams in most years would be well out of the running by August, which would depress attendance and viewership in those teams’ home towns. That was a problem baseball didn’t need, for it had been struggling with attendance since the advent of television: nearly 21 million fans bought tickets in 1948, but attendance sagged well below that through the 1950s, and remained stuck in the low 20-millions through 1968.

The way to boost fan interest–and to give a big boost to the value of national TV rights–was to split the leagues into divisions, thereby requiring a round of playoffs to determine the World Series teams. This seems to have done the trick, as attendance exceeded the 40-million mark within a decade. The nature of the game had changed forever.

Today there are really three rounds of playoffs (the wild-card play-in game, the league division series, and the league championship series) to determine the two World Series participants. Some still say that the winner of the LCS has won “the pennant”, but in reality those teams have mostly earned the right to move on to the final round of a month-long tournament. The long regular season in baseball is now simply a quest to gain entry into the “postseason”. Since the addition of a wild-card team to the playoffs in 1994, ten teams that did not finish first in their divisions have gone on to the World Series, and five of those teams have won the Series. Performance in the regular season is still important, but not as important as it used to be. Now, postseason performance matters hugely, but postseason statistics still aren’t a part of the standard evaluation of players’ careers.

The conventional reply to the point I just made is, “small sample size!”* Baseball is a game in which small differences in execution can lead to large differences in outcomes. A ball that just ticks off a fielder’s glove is a hit, while it would’ve been an out if hit an inch closer to the fielder. A difference of a couple of millimeters in terms of where a ball hits a bat means the difference between a fly-ball out and a home run.

But while fans certainly enjoy a team that has a good, but not great, season, championships are what ultimately matter in the Playoff Era. The most memorable moments, the most exciting plays, largely are those that happen in the October spotlight. And if a Hall of Fame is about anything, it ought to be about the greatest performances on the biggest stage.

This year, there’ll be a lot of talk about Jack Morris, who pitched a justly-famous game to win the 1991 World Series for the Minnesota Twins and is in his final year of eligibility for the Hall. There will also be some energetic debate over a guy on the ballot for the first time, Curt Schilling. Neither of these pitchers has the kind of regular-season career stats that demand induction into the HoF. In fact, a huge part of the support for Morris seems to derive entirely from his tremendous performance in a single game. Schilling’s case is in the same category, but much stronger. Basically, his performance in the postseason was legendary: In his postseason career, Schilling allowed less than one baserunner per inning (a WHIP of.968, to be precise). For purposes of comparison, that’s slightly better than the .978 average put up by Pedro Martinez during his seven seasons in Boston, when he had some of the greatest seasons in the history of pitching. And it’s better than Pedro’s own postseason WHIP of 1.08. There’s no question whatsoever that Pedro was the better pitcher over his career–none whatsoever. I only mention Pedro to illustrate how well Schilling pitched in the postseason, against the two or three best teams in baseball.

The time has come for the Hall of Fame debate to recognize how the game has changed since the 1970s. People can–and most definitely will–differ on the relative importance of regular-season vs. postseason performance. I don’t think anyone will ever argue against the proposition that the Hall should recognize individual greatness during the regular season. But there’s plenty of room in the Hall for a different kind of player–someone who was at least Very Good in the regular season and Otherworldly in the postseason.

That’s why Curt Schilling belongs in Cooperstown.


*At this point I’d like to register my extreme dislike of the “small sample size” terminology. What people should be saying is simply that postseason samples are small. Not “small-sized”, which is hideously redundant.


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What Makes a Baseball Player “Most Valuable”?

It happens at the end of every baseball season: the argument over what “valuable” means in the context of the sport’s Most Valuable Player award. I enjoy a good argument, especially over relatively minor things like awards to multimillionaires (or, in the case of very young players, imminent multimillionaires). But I don’t enjoy reading sports columns in which the writer sets himself up as the One True Arbiter, dismissing as a fool anyone who disagrees with his value judgment. There are plenty of examples, such as this one, by Dave Cameron at Fangraphs (a site that has consistently mismeasured the value of a win, btw).

Another example of an off-puttingly high ratio of self-regard to actual merit has been written by NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski. Now I’ve got to stipulate up front that Posnanski is a good writer, especially when the subject is his family. But when it comes to the MVP award, Joe’s writing turns into a caricature of internet commentary. His opinion is not only correct, but it’s the only logical opinion. Anyone who disagrees with him is a fool or a knave. Sometimes that’s true, of course–you’ll find plenty of those arguments in the archives of this very blog–but it’s silly to think that considerations of “value” could possibly be inarguable.

There are two distinct parts to the question of value. Essentially, they are quantity and quality. In the case of baseball, the “quantity” aspect is a player’s level of performance. For hitting, this is pretty measurable, although there’s still a split between those who cling to the measures used in the past (particularly batting average and runs batted in) and those currently in vogue such as “offensive WAR” (don’t ask). The measurement of players’ value as fielders is recognized as imprecise by pretty much everyone.* Evaluating defense still relies heavily on direct observation, which means it’s somewhat subjective.

What’s the “quality” aspect of player value? To answer that question, you’ve first got to answer the question, How does a baseball player create value? To his employer, of course, a player’s purpose is to help sell tickets. What sells tickets? One obvious answer is a winning team. There’s plenty of evidence that that’s true, anecdotal and otherwise. During Boston’s legendary “Impossible Dream” 1967 season, for example, attendance more than doubled relative to the previous year. But there’s also the “Ted Williams” answer. Once Ted went off to fight in the Korean War, the Red Sox entered a period of mediocrity that got even worse after he retired. The main reason people bought tickets to Red Sox games after he returned from Korea was to watch Williams hit. Attendance hit rock bottom after he retired (from over 1.1 million in Ted’s last season to 733 thousand two years later). So there’s obvious value in a player’s pure performance level no matter how good or bad his teammates are. The precise balance between these two aspects of value can be debated by reasonable people, but it’s clear that the value of an additional win to a team’s fans is entirely context-dependent. This is a point that is completely missed by Fangraphs.

The Posnanski/Cameron position is either that the value of a win isn’t context-dependent, or that a player’s “value” should be measured without regard to the value of the wins he contributed to his team. (They never specify which position they’re taking, because they never show any awareness of the distinction at all.) I think of the first view as the Gertrude Stein position: A win is a win is a win. And for the same reason that Stein is wrong, so is Posnanski. The evidence supports anyone’s intuition that an extra win is worth more to a team that’s in contention for a championship than it is to a team that’s out of the running. In fact, the data show that an extra win is worth a lot more to a team that’s already likely to win 90 games than it is to a team that’s likely to win only 80 games.

The second interpretation of Posnanski’s opinion is that a player’s value should be considered independently of his team’s record. It’s not fair, in this view, to give a player credit for what his teammates do. This view is simply a personal judgment, but Posnanski claims that his position is somehow more logical than the other.** That’s not merely completely, utterly, incontrovertibly wrong. It’s also illogical.

Dave Cameron implicitly recognizes this. He doesn’t like the fact that people can argue over “value”, so he wants “MVP” changed to “Best Player”. The counterargument to this is that Major League Baseball already has many “best player” awards: the Cy Young award for best pitcher and the Hank Aaron award for best hitter. In addition, the MLB Players’ Association bestows an Outstanding Player award. There is a Gold Glove award for each fielding position, and recently a Platinum Glove award has been introduced (although it’s not an official MLB award) to honor the best overall fielder regardless of position.

So what’s left to recognize with an award? Value, in all its debatable glory.

Let the debate continue, but in complete awareness of what the fundamental issues are.


*Unnecessary detail: “Errors” have long been  understood to be unreliable statistics because a fielder who manages to get close to a relatively small number of balls in play can have a low error total but still be of low value. “Assists” are equally unreliable. Many infielders’ errors are due to errant throws, which means that a really good first baseman will improve the stats of his fellow infielders. The credit for his performance is misallocated by “assists”. For outfielders, “assists” are earned by throwing runners out on the bases, but when an outfielder develops a reputation for strong, accurate throws runners are much less likely to try to advance an extra base. Recent attempts to improve on these statistics are clearly unreliable, since the same player’s rating can fluctuate wildly from year to year.

**The adherents to the Gertrude Stein view of value often claim that the alternate view means that only players from first-place teams can be the “most valuable”. This is complete nonsense. A player’s contribution to team value is the product of his individual performance in terms of additional wins and the value of additional wins to his team. Clearly, a player on a 70-win team won’t have the highest value unless his performance vastly exceeds anyone else’s, but it’s logically possible for that to happen. The Gertrude Stein types who commit this error, and consequently dismiss those they disagree with as dolts, are a particularly annoying subspecies.

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Martin Bashir Isn’t Even a Competent Leftist

Everybody on the right is talking about MSNBC Ranting Head Martin Bashir’s enraged Palin-bashing from the other day, but nobody seems to see the key point. ICYMI and don’t want to watch any Martin Bashir clips (smart choice!), here’s the teapot tempest: In a speech explaining the burden our enormous public debt places on future taxpayers, Sarah said that we in the here-and-now were, in a sense, imposing slavery on our children. Bashir went off on a self-righteous rant about how very awful it was (ignorant, too!) for her to trivialize true slavery by comparing it to a heavy tax burden. While righties focus on the nasty things he called for Sarah to be subjected to, and lefties focus on reassuring themselves that they’re so very much smarter than Caribou Barbie, nobody seems to be aware of the fact that this sort of “slavery” simile is practically a verbal tic among far leftists.

Let’s start with the First Lady of Socialism, Emma Goldman, who wrote: The only difference is that you [people who work for wages] are hired slaves instead of block slaves.

Too far in the past? OK, then, how about Noam Chomsky? What they call wage slavery … was not very different from chattel slavery.

Indeed, so great is the readiness of hard-core lefties to deploy the term “wage slavery” that Communpedia* posts this warning in big, bold font: Comrades: be careful with the use of this term because it can be dismissive of the actual experience of slaves. Sadly, polemics aren’t as easy as they used to be in these days of Dangerous Metaphors, not even the ritualistic bashing of greedy capitalists  exploiting their workers by offering them mere money in exchange for their sweaty-browed toil.

Now, the term “wage slavery” truly is dismissive of the actual experience of slaves, for the simple reason that voluntary labor contracts were precisely what slaves aspired to. It’s a hideous inversion of truth and a grotesque offense to the memory of the enslaved to assert an equivalence between the situation they sought to escape and the one they hoped to attain through emancipation. So if Martin Bashir were really as outraged by the use of stupid slavery analogies as he claims to be, he could find enough material from his fellow lefties to fill a week’s worth of air time with denunciations. I’ll be sure to tune in if he decides to do that.

But Sarah Palin deserves no such denunciation for comparing taxation without representation to slavery. Her point was that the people who’ll have to pay off the huge debt burden we keep incurring now are mostly not able to vote on this policy, either because they’re below the voting age or haven’t even been born yet. Palin’s simile forces us to see the common aspect of both actions, namely the taking of wealth from one group of people without their consent. This does not dismiss the evil of slavery; rather, it uses slavery’s universally recognized immorality to get us to recognize the moral aspect of massive public debt.

It turns out that Chomsky has used the “slavery” analogy in this sense, too:

Chomsky went on to add that some people in Germany, who want to have anything of value in Greece, are “imposing conditions of economic slavery and psychological pressure on the Greeks.”

Pretty clearly one of the rules of engagement the left insists on is, All slavery references belong to us. Equally clearly, Sarah Palin is once again using the lefties’ tactics against them, which reliably makes them howl in outrage. Funny stuff, really, when viewed in the proper light.

Of course, Martin Bashir’s rises to the bait so spectacularly that he reveals himself to be a standout idiot even among his fellow idiots on the left. But you probably knew that already, if in fact you’d ever heard of him before.


*I have no idea why there’s no “i” between “Commun” and “pedia”. Seriously comrades, is meter just too bourgeois a part of style for you?


Filed under Freedom, People Who Lack Self-Awareness, Sarah Palin, TV

Something Good Happened in Pelosiland

It’s nice to be able to put politics aside for a moment and recognize some good people for some good works. Over 12,000 people volunteered their time and effort to transform San Fiasco into Gotham City, so that a five-year-old leukemia patient could be Batman for a day with his little brother as Robin.

This story is guaranteed to make the room you’re in a little dusty.

Batman for a Day

Batman for a Day

I have another wish for Miles: a full recovery and a long, healthy life.

And if you’d like to do a little something for all the people in Miles’s condition, you might consider donating here, or perhaps here.

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