Sunday, November 29, 2009

the republican loyalty test

I don't have many Republican readers--actually, I don't have that many readers at all--so I'm not sure how many have followed the new "loyalty test" (my term, not theirs) being proposed for Republican candidates. The test poses ten questions on various policy issues--taxes, abortion, the stimulus package, etc.--and evaluates the candidates' responses. Eight out of ten and you are a kosher (again my term) candidate who qualifies for funding, endorsement, etc. ; seven or less and you are toast. The test is objective in nature, i.e., consists exclusively of yes and no questions, and is accordingly self-graded. The eight of ten concept is apparently traceable to a quotation from Ronald Reagan, although some of suggested that he himself would have flunked, as would several contemporary Republican officials.

I myself took it and failed, getting only seven out of ten correct answers. As I recall, I missed out on abortion [don't like it but don't think it's the Government's problem], global warming [don't know if the world is burning up but unwilling to take the chance], and one other question I can't quite remember. Fortunately, the test is as yet merely a proposal, and it's not clear that it will make it to local committeeperson, a post no one else wants to run for, even if it is approved.

As my comments suggest, I don't think much of the test, although I'm not sure what standing the Democrats have to critique it. (You could design a similar test for liberals and nearly all of them would pass.) My criticism is based partly on a dislike of loyalty oaths and partly on an educator's suspicion of any test that is this easy to cheat on. For example, it doesn't take terribly much insight to figure out that higher taxes and more regulation are incorrect answers. Now, if they would lock the candidates in a room for three hours and have them answer multiple choice questions on passages from conservative philosophers, the answers to be graded on a scale of 200 to 800: wait, isn't that how the other party chooses its candidates?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

. . . and more on football

A couple of weeks ago the New England Patriots' head coach, Bill Belichick, decided to "go for it" (i.e., attempt to get a first down) rather than punting on fourth and two at his own 26 yard line. He didn't make it, and lost the game. Last Saturday Yale, which is presumably a smart if not terribly talented football team, tried the same thing against Harvard. They failed, and also lost.

The Patriots and (to a lesser extent) Yale losses spawned a small cottage industry of statistical analyses, many or most of which concluded that the decision to go rather than kick was logical. Yet most football people will tel you the decisions were stupid . . . and the fact remains both teams lost. What's going on?

I think this is a good example of the limits of statistical analysis and the benefits, often derided, of plain old common sense. One problem, I suspect, is that it's harder than you might think to make a statistical analysis. For example, do you look at all cases in which previous teams went for it on fourth and two, or only those where they did so in the fourth quarter? Do you look at all possible contests, or only those involving the same two (or comparable) teams? These kinds of questions come up all the time in statistics, but rarely with so much on the line.

Another interesting question is what the decision to "go for it" communicates and how the decision itself affects the psychology of both sides. Both the Patriots and the Elis (Yale) had long losing streaks against the relevant opponents: in the Patriots' case, at least, the decision reflected a lack of confidence in the team's defense as much as confidence in its offense. Did the recklessness of the choices subtly or not so subtly convey a sense of desperation, which inspired their opponents to thwart the coaches' plans?

I am reminded here of William F. Buckley's famous assertion that he would rather be governed by people chosen at random from the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. Buckley, of course, went to Yale.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

more on the middle east

I have recently gotten involved in a number of groups that are trying to regenerate enthusiasm for Israel among American Jews. There is a sense that the two communities are growing apart, and many of us would like very much to reverse that. Unfortunately, some people contribute more than others to this effort.

Last night one of our groups hosted Barry Rubin, whose Wikipedia entry describes him as a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and senior fellow at the center's Institute for Counter-Terrorism as well as a prolific author and editor. The lecture was entitled "Looking under the Goldstone: How the new campaign against Israel is destroying the Arab World." It was unusually well attended, owing to aggressive publicity efforts in which I played a minor role.

In practice, the lecture had little to do with Goldstone or current events at all, being devoted instead to Rubin's apparently well-rehearsed theory of the Arab-Israeli conflict. So far as I can make out, the theory is as follows:

1. Arabs have no interest in peace with Israel and simply pretend to, primarily in English-language statements, in order to undercut support for the Jewish State and hasten its ultimate destruction. They regularly lie and exaggerate in their official declarations, often admitting privately, to Rubin and others, that they are in fact doing so. (Rubin, who it must be admitted is quite witty and urbane, appears to speak Arabic and to have met various Palestinian leaders.)

2. Westerners, including liberal Israelis and American Jews, are often taken in by the above because they persist in thinking in Western terms, under which one says what one means and tries to take an honest or even self-deprecatory view of one's own position. By contrast Arab culture rewards strength and interprets the above tendencies as weaknesses to be exploited.

3. The Goldstone Report was effectively written by Hamas propagandists who intentionally lied and exaggerated to Goldstone as predicted above. Goldstone himself is an "opportunist" who collaborated with the South African apartheid regime despite claims to the contrary.

4. Given 1-3 above, there is little or no chance for a meaningful peace agreement in the foreseeable future.

My problem with all this is less that is false, although I think points 1-3 mostly are (I'm less sure about #4), than that it is almost wholly devoid of original, intellectual thought. If one adjusts the names and dates slightly, there is quite simply nothing here that I couldn't and didn't hear from hard-line Israelis when I was fourteen years old, and probably intuited to be emotional rather than intellectual in origin even at that tender age. Essentially we are asked to believe that the entire Middle East is impermeable to rational analysis because one side is inherently dishonest, violent, and cowardly, the prejudice thinly veiled under a patina of "cultural" analysis of exactly the type Rubin purports to disdain: an almost exact reflection, as it happens, of the other side's extremist views. If this is what is being offered by Israeli intellectuals--and I must note that Rubin has an appointment from the IDC, a sort of fledgling institution, rather than a full-fledged Israeli university--it is no wonder there is a credibility gap.

I find this sort of analysis particularly dispiriting given my own work on antisemitism and the Holocaust (actually, pre-Holocaust) era. Imagine that an American intellectual in the 1930s had asked a European antisemite, what are you getting so excited about? Aren't the Jews relatively small in number, and lacking in political power? Ah, the antisemite would have responded, you are thinking in liberal Western terms. The Jews don't tell the truth like other people: they claim to be loyal citizens and in fact cooperate with foreign powers. They think in long terms: even a tiny number of them will some day control our political system. The antisemite would likely have responded, in other words, with an essentialist, "cultural" argument not entirely different from that advanced by Rubin and his ilk. I am not saying that the Israeli (or American) right are like the Nazis: there is no real threat of violence and their analysis of contemporary issues is frequently accurate. I am simply suggesting that theories which substitute emotion for reason, which lump together entire groups of people on the basis of supposed cultural traits, do not have a very good track record, and Jewish people should be particularly reticent about using them. To fire up a crowd of believers, such arguments (if they be called that) may be successful. To win over the unconverted--let alone make foreign policy--they are likely to be much less so.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

health care 60, republicans 2010?

Celebrations were muted for the vote to allow the health care debate to proceed, and rightly so. It isn't a terribly big accomplishment for a party with 60 seats to control the legislative agenda, even on an issue as controversial as health care reform. Nor does it guarantee that a bill will pass, or (if it does) what it will contain: InTrade, the online predictions market, is citing odds of about 25:1 against a public option being approved by December 31, although this might change if a later date were chosen.

The InTrade odds suggest a key point about the health care debate: the question is not so much if a bill will pass as what the bill that eventually does pass will consist of. The question of whether the Democrats can "get to 50" on the bill is in this sense as meaningless as whether they can "get to 60" on cloture: legislation being a changing rather than a fixed quantity (especially in the Senate), it is nearly always possible to draft some bill that will get the required number of votes. The issue, properly conceived, is whether the legislation so drafted will be worth having, and whether it will help or hurt the Democrats--not to mention the country--in the long run.

A big sleeper, I think, is the issue of revenue estimates. The budget police have, amazingly, scored health care reform as a revenue gainer, but only because it (i) is intentionally set up to move many of the costs into the "out years," and (ii) assumes substantial reductions in existing health care spending, the precise terms of which have yet to be agreed on. Both of these tricks are well known to tax experts, as is the fact that--as legislation progresses--it tends to add more spending rather than more revenues, which must then be offset by further trickery. The bottom line with health care remains this: it is simply not credible that tens of millions of people can receive quality health care with no meaningful cost to anyone else, nor that it makes sense to enact a huge tax and regulatory framework at a time when the nations's overwhelming concern remains unemployment and slow or nonexistent economic growth. Sooner or later these issues will catch up with the Democrats: for many of them, probably sooner.

Monday, November 09, 2009

berlusconi, bloomberg, and the rise of the demomonarchy

I'm talked out on the subject of last week's elections, and I'm not sure I have very much different to say than anyone else, anyway. In a nutshell, the Republicans did well: if the Democrats learn the right lessons, they'll correct, and if not they'll lose still more ground. Those who want to hear more can follow my blog at

I want to talk here about an election that didn't get much coverage: the coronation, uh, reelection of Mike (never Michael) Bloomberg as Mayor of New York City. For those who didn't follow, Bloomberg spent close to $100 million--more than presidential elections cost until recently--and put together an enormous campaign organization to ensure his third term, not to mention getting the city charter changed to permit it. His opponent, William Thompson, was almost totally unheard of. Most people predicted a walkover; many didn't bother to vote. Instead Bloomberg won by about four percentage points: had Barack Obama accepted an invitation to campaign for his opponent, he probably would have lost.

I think the Bloomberg story is in many ways the sleeper of this election season. For one thing, it helps to put the Tea Party and similar movements into proper perspective. These have often been portrayed as conservative or right-wing as opposed to the "moderate" Republicans who would provide the party with a brighter future. The problem is that many of these "moderates" are more accurately described as elitists: business-oriented candidates who win with money and organization but whose roots in the community are, well, not particularly deep. Some of them, like Bloomberg and Arlen Specter, have ceased being Republicans, altogether. A challenge to their leadership is no more inherently quixotic than was that of Obama to Hillary Clinton or Thompson to Bloomberg: and no more certain of failure, either.

The Bloomberg situation also provides an interesting example of a new global phenomenon, what might be called demomonarchy: the rise of elected officials so wealthy and powerful as to be virtually unremovable except by their own accord. Several mornings a week I stop by my local cafe to watch the Italian 1:00 pm news. Since Italy is a nominal democracy they cannot avoid reporting bad news. But since both the public and private TV stations are effectively controlled by one man, Silvio Berlusconi, they tend to report it in a less than enthusiastic way. Thus, on one recent morning, a story that the Constitutional Court had rejected a law providing immunity from criminal prosecution for Berlusconi and other top officials--roughly equivalent to the Supreme Court's decision on the Nixon tapes in 1974--received five minutes of blase coverage while a mudslide in Sicily went on for a quarter hour. When a Catholic journalist suggested that Berlusconi, who has been hanging around with underage women, was perhaps not a good choice for Catholic support, a cabal of Government hacks quickly dug up dirt on the reporter; he resigned shortly thereafter.

Bloomberg is not Berlusconi, and he seems to be doing a pretty reasonable job. But Italy is not the country you want to be emulating in political matters. The more we see power (as in Italy) concentrated in a few hands--and the further the boundary between public and private power erodes--the more angry people will become and the more dysfunctional our system will be. Sometimes the revolt will come from the left, and sometimes from the right; many of these will be distasteful in many respects. But it is the sclerosis of the system that is the real problem rather than people's response to it: the longer the fix is delayed, the nastier things will get.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

the ugly israeli

My son and I watch "Numbers" on Friday night together. (Actually, I watch it while he plays computer games and checks the plot periodically, but that's another story.) For those who don't follow the show, it revolves around a hard-bitten FBI agent whose brother, a math genius, improbably comes up with solutions for each week's episode. Both characters and their father (Judd Hirsch) are identifiably Jewish, although they equally improbably date a series of very beautiful women, all of whom appear to be either Indian or African-American, and none of whom they seem to marry, although the math genius was recently engaged.

The bad guys are frequently foreign, and this week's was as an Israeli, supposedly a renegade Mossad agent who was involved in some kind of identity theft scheme. Israeli, but not Jewish, at least not the way it is usually perceived: by which I mean, he hand none of the negative characteristics--cleverness, obsession with money, etc.--associated with antisemitic stereotypes. Instead he was violent, maniacal, and thoroughly ruthless, albeit not sufficiently so to avoid being outsmarted in the end. The Ugly Israeli, that is; but by no means the Dirty Jew.

I suppose one should be happy to see the image change in this way. Given a choice between the Enemy of Humanity and a garden-variety thug, it's probably better to be the latter. But one can't help wondering: is this the best we can do? Has the Jewish future really come to a choice between intermarriage, on the one hand, and mindless, self-destructive violence on the other? Maybe one of the characters will meet an Israeli girl.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

the right wins (for the moment) in new york 23

The conservative wing, or torso, of the Republican Party seems to have won out as moderate Dede Scozzafava--an Italian name which appears to mean "shuffle the beans"--has dropped out of the congressional race in NY23 in favor of conservative Doug Hoffman. For anyone who's not a political junkie, Scozzafava is (or was) the party-endorsed candidate until a huge national campaign was launched on Hoffman's behalf by conservative activists, talk show hosts, and (of late) Republican politicians, notably Sarah Palin, causing her to suspend campaigning this weekend. The election now seems to be between Hoffman and Democrat Bill Owens, although the whole thing will probably be replayed next year.

As a moderate Republican myself, I probably should feel bad about Scozzafava dropping out, and indeed--as Newt Gingrich and others have pointed out--second-guessing local party officials is not usually the best way to win elections. That said I find entertaining, to say the least, the laments of liberals like Frank Rich complaining that Republican "Stalinists" (there's a thought) are committing political suicide by helping candidates who share their political views rather than those who don't. There is, for the record, nothing wrong with people outside a district supporting candidates of their choice: Democrats do it all the time, most notably in Connecticut, and indeed entire websites exist for the purpose of helping "progressive" candidates with external funds. Nor was Scozzafava merely a libertarian: she appears to have supported the stimulus package and (according to some reports) "card check" legislation as well as abortion, gay rights, and so forth.

What is particularly interesting is that Democrats should be so solicitous of Republican fortunes. The real fear, of course, is not that conservative Republicans will lose, but that they will win, denying Democrats the ability to claim "bipartisan" support for what are pretty clearly partisan, liberal policies. Indeed, while Scozzafava looked a sure loser, Hoffman has lately been surging in the district: what will Democrats say if he wins?

Note: Scozzafava endorsed the Democrat (Owens) today, which should make everyone believe whatever they previously believed even more strongly.

phils and yanks: on to game four

Well the Phillies either win tonight or they're--should I say we're--in big trouble. I think they will, but they will have to up the level of their game, and intensity, considerably in order to do so. Oddly enough the Yankees, they of the $300 million payroll, are playing like they want it more than our home-town, working class heroes. Throughout the last few seasons the Phillies have played best when their backs were to the wall. They're not quite there, but they're close, let's hope they don't wait until it's too late.

On the subject of intensity: I don't have anything against Cliff Lee needing four days rest, but I can't help noting how things have changed. When I was a kid, Sandy Koufax pitched Game Seven on TWO days rest, and won. On the other hand, the Orioles beat him twice in one World Series, so no one--not Sabathia, not Burnett-- no one is unbeatable. A lesson the Phillies should remember in the big game tonight . . . and tomorrow.

Addendum: a friend points out that Koufax lost only once to the Orioles and Don Drysdale twice; also that three errors in one inning by Willie Davis were largely at fault. I think both Koufax and Drysdale pitched on two days rest on various occasions. Too late for the Phillies, anyway.