Some old, dead writer defined "Wit" as "discovering likeness in things unlike". This article is about finding likenesses in things unlike—hence, the title. It’s not "witty" in the modern sense of the word.
Immigration and Steroids
Punishment and enforcement are linked by their nature to such an extent that many among us fail to distinguish between punishment and enforcement of the rules. When a murder is committed, we punish the murderer whenever we can catch him. If it’s 20 years later, we don’t care; 50 years later, he’s still liable to punishment. That is enforcement; punishment is enforcement in that case.
When a football player jumps off-side, we punish his team with a few yards. Punishment is used to enforce the rule. This causes people to think that punishment and enforcement of the rules are synonymous. In some cases they are. In some cases a walk is the same as a hit; in some cases it is not. In some cases punishment and enforcement are synonymous; in some cases they are not.
In many cases punishment must be linked immediately to the offense, or it has no effect as enforcement. If your dog makes a mess on the rug and you punish him 24 hours later, when you find the mess, this has no effect; thus it is, in fact, NOT enforcement of the rules. If a small child does wrong and you put him in time out two hours later, this has no value as enforcement of the rules, because the child makes no connection.
Suppose that there was a backfield-in-motion violation that was not called at the time, and the offending team then scored a touchdown. Suppose then, at halftime, the officials were reviewing the play, saw incontrovertible evidence of the transgression, and decided to take the touchdown off the scoreboard. Would that work?
It’s not like murder. The rule can only be enforced, as a practical matter, at the time the violation occurs.
The Illegal Immigration problem and the Steroid/Hall of Fame Issue are alike in this way: That both of these are cases in which people want to enforce after the fact rules which can only effectively be enforced at the time of the transgression. In 1985, in 1988, in 1991 players were using steroids, and there was absolutely no enforcement of any rule against this (if, indeed, there was a rule against this, which we can debate another time.) Now people want to penalize those players, take their accomplishments off the boards.
Illegal immigration is the same thing. If you don’t want people coming into this country without papers, the time and place to enforce that is the border. Trying to enforce this policy. . ..or let us call it a law. Trying to enforce this law after the fact by punishing the people against whom no flag was thrown at the time is unraveling the thread of their lives, going backward in time. It is more-than-just punishment because, by unraveling the thread of their lives, in exacts a life-altering penalty for an offense that does not justify such a punishment.
Post-Election and Sportscasters
In a basketball game, if one team jumps off to a 20-11 lead and holds the lead until late in the game, the broadcast color man in most cases—19 times out of 20—will spend most of the game browbeating everything that the trailing team does. They can be trailing 83-78 with two minutes to play, and the announcer will still be dogging them: They have no energy, their offense is out of sync, they’re not taking care of the ball, they’re not blocking out on rebounds, etc., etc. If it’s 41-38 at halftime, the halftime analysis will score about 70-15—an endless series of criticisms of the team which has, in truth, merely missed one three-pointer or failed to defend one.
What the Republicans are going through now is the same thing: an endless loop of greatly exaggerated criticisms of everything they have done—they’ve disrespected women, they’ve forgotten the middle class, they’ve sold out to Wall Street, they’ve alienated Latinos, they have presented no vision for the future, etc., etc. Guys, it was 64-60. Knock it off.
90 Feet and 50-50
64 million votes to 60 million.
People will tell you that the man who designed the baseball field had to be a genius because after 150 years, infielders are still throwing out runners by a single step. 90 feet is the perfect distance. 87 feet, all those runners would be safe; 93 feet, there would be no close plays. 90 feet is a directive from God.
What this misses, of course, is the internal forces of the game. Infielders are still throwing out runners by a single step not because 90 feet is a perfect distance, but because infielders position themselves in such a way that they maximize their coverage. The place where an infielder can make the most plays is the place where the plays are closest and most difficult. If the bases were 80 feet apart the infielders would move in a couple of steps, the outfielders would move in one step, and there would still be just as many close plays at first base. Not EVERYTHING would be exactly the same, but the number of close plays doesn’t depend on the distance. It depends on the fielders positioning themselves so as to maximize the number of plays that they can make.
In modern American politics, the two parties split most elections almost 50-50—so much so that a 64-60 vote is considered a rout. Political commentators will talk about how remarkably evenly split the American electorate is.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with the electorate being evenly split. It results from political parties adopting positions that maximize their coverage. The Republicans may want to ban abortion entirely (certainly some of them do), but they also want to win elections. The Democrats may wish to legalize infanticide (certainly some of them do), but they also want to win elections. If either side adopts a radical position, they lose elections, lose power, and have to adapt their position.
The Republicans may wish to devote 70% of the federal budget to military spending; the Democrats may wish to cut it to 5%. If either side pushes too hard, they lose elections, and have to adapt. The positions taken by each side on every issue are constantly adjusted and adapted to form a compromise between the extreme positions and the center of the country—hence, elections in a two-party system are always pushed near to the 50-50 balance point.
One would think this was obvious, but believe me, I watch a LOT of political analysis, and 90% of the political analysts don’t have a clue that this is what is happening.
The Airport Game
One time in the 1980s I missed a flight because I just wasn’t paying enough attention. I was kind of dawdling on the way to the airport, stopped to get coffee and a donut, got to the airport too late. Flying to Europe in 2002 with my family we got to the airport on time, but it was this close. We got to the station in the parking lot where the bus takes you to the terminal, and another family came right behind us and got in line behind us; they were supposed to be on the same flight we were. When the bus came it was too full to take us all, so that family had to wait for the next bus—and they missed the flight. That would have been a real nightmare, to have missed that flight.
Every time I go to the airport, then, I play a game in my head designed to ensure that I don’t dawdle. I figure that it is 70 miles to the airport, and I figure it will take me two minutes per mile. Then I figure it will take me another 10 minutes to get through traffic in Lawrence, 10 minutes to get on the toll road, 10 minutes to get off, 10 minutes to switch highways in Kansas City, 10 minutes to go from Kansas into Missouri, 10 minutes to park, and 90 minutes to get to the gate after I park. Altogether, I figure it will take me 290 minutes to get to the airport (70 times 2, plus 6 times 10, plus 90). If I leave my house at 10 AM for a noon flight, I calculate that I am two hours and 50 minutes late.
Except, of course, that it doesn’t actually take two minutes to drive a mile; it just takes one, actually a little less than one while you are on the highway. It doesn’t take an additional 10 minutes to clear traffic in Lawrence; it takes about six. It doesn’t take ten minutes to get on the turnpike or get off; it takes about 30 seconds, and it doesn’t take more than maybe one additional minute to switch highways in Kansas City. It doesn’t take any time at all to cross the state line into Missouri. It doesn’t take 90 minutes to get from the parking lot to the gate; it’s usually around 20, although it can go longer sometimes. Also, it isn’t actually 70 miles to the airport; it is about 55 miles, and also, both the clock in my car and the one on my wrist are about 10 minutes fast.
Every time I go to the airport I recalculate constantly how far behind schedule I am. .. .now I can get there at 2:34; now I can get there at 2:17, etc. In reality, of course, if I leave for the airport at 10 AM for a noon flight, I should be OK. I am, in essence, trying to deceive myself into taking seriously the possibility that I may be late, by exaggerating the risks and compounding the miscalculations.
Modern politics is a war of Airport Games. The Republicans and Libertarians exaggerate every small encroachment on personal liberty to make it sound as if the Thought Police were at the door. The Military-Industrial Complex exaggerates the importance of every faraway nitwit to make it seem as though he was ten minutes away from getting a nuke. The health professionals exaggerate the number of people who are obese and flat-out lie about the rate at which this is increasing. Various groups exaggerate the problems with our educational system.
The champions of the Airport Game, though, are the environmentalists. It doesn’t matter how much cleaner the air gets, how much cleaner the water gets, how much cleaner the beaches get, how much environmental risk we are able to eliminate; in their world view we are always 20 minutes away from environmental catastrophe—and the problem is getting dramatically worse all the time. In the area where I live in my memory the population of deer, fox, beaver and many other types of wildlife have increased a thousand fold. The number of hawks you see resting on telephone polls. . .up by a factor of dozens. It means that whatever the hawks are feeding on, their population is up, too. The only thing that has gone backward is the turtles, maybe the frogs. Doesn’t matter; to hear the environmentalists talk, we are eradicating species and sliding backward into environmental catastrophe at a rate Jeff Gordon would envy.
The environmentalists are neither bad people, nor wrong. They are merely doing what I do when I go to the airport: they are exaggerating risks in an effort to get people to take the problem seriously. I am entirely with them, up to a point. I am all in favor of setting aside large tracts of land for the benefit of non-human species (so long as this land is not taken by force from the people who own it.) I am entirely in favor of doing something about wobal glarming before it is too late. I am not in favor of ceding to the federal government powers that the government will quite certainly abuse in order to bring about such changes. Maybe we can agree to disagree about that. What the environmentalists don’t seem capable of processing is the damage that they have done to their own credibility and their own cause by constantly exaggerating risks. The environmental foot-draggers are not bad people, either; they are merely reacting with great skepticism to the latest pronouncements of people who have lied to them repeatedly in the past.
My wife and I have season tickets to the Symphony. I enjoy classical music, although, to be honest, this is my wife’s thing that I do because she enjoys it, as she enjoys baseball games but going to baseball games is still my thing on some level.
Classical music has very, very serious problems as an industry. The number of people who enjoy classical music is small compared to the market for other kinds of music (Rock, Country, Rap, Jazz), and the market is composed primarily of old people. I’m 63; at classical concerts I am usually below the median age of the audience. Classical music is generally very expensive to produce, compared to other forms of music. We saw a Willie Nelson concert a few months ago; it’s Willie Nelson, one of his daughters and three or four other guys on a stage. We saw a symphony in the same hall last week; there is an 80- or 90-piece orchestra of very highly trained musicians, backed up by a choral group of 150 singers.
Classical music survives, or has survived so far, because it has advantages over the marketplace, rather than advantage in the marketplace. Classical music is perceived by a very large cadre of musical professionals as the highest form of music, and these people have integrated themselves and their music into the society in ways that insulate it from extinction by economic forces. High schools do not teach young musicians to play rock and roll, as a rule; they teach them to play "instruments", which are in truth the instruments of classical music. College music programs are 90% devoted to classical music. Music teachers teach small children to play simplified forms of Haydn and Chopin on the piano. Millions of small children take violin lessons, which their parents get for them because this is how music is taught. The perception that this form of music is "classy"—widely accepted in our culture—keeps the form alive by giving it these advantages, and many similar and related advantages. Governments fund classical music in dozens of ways that we would never consider funding rock and roll. Cities built concert halls designed for the symphony—and many or most cities help to fund their symphony orchestras. Government-sponsored radio plays hours a day of classical music, which is all but extinct on commercial radio.
At the Willie Nelson concert I am well above the median age and, I suspect, the median income. At the symphony I am below the median age and, I suspect, well below the median income. Those old people who go to the symphony have more-than-proportional power because they have more-than-proportional wealth. This is reflected in how the government spends its money.
There is something much more than that going on here. It has to do with the perception of rectitude, of value and of virtue. People who become symphony musicians are trained to do so from a very early age, are very, very highly trained, and go through layers of selection and rejection to reach that level. Rock musicians just pick up a guitar and start bangin’. "Trained" is the word I want to focus on.
On the spectrum of sport, baseball is toward the classical music end—and is becoming more so all the time. The Frisbee was invented in 1948, and became popular in the late 1950s. (Before that, we sailed can lids.) By the late 1960s we were playing Frisbee football. My son plays what he calls Ultimate Frisbee, which is just Frisbee football with a few wrinkles. His friends would never think to organize a baseball game or softball game among themselves. When they want to go out and run around a little, they play Frisbee football.
If we were to "train" very young boys to play Frisbee football, would that improve the sport? Should we make them take Frisbee football lessons, when they are seven and eight? Should we buy them expensive equipment for Frisbee football? Should we put them on organized Frisbee football teams, when they are very young, and demand that they produce birth certificates so that we can be sure no nine-year-olds are sneaking into the eight-year-olds league, and give them trophies, and take team pictures of them, and have the city pay someone to referee their Frisbee football games? Should we have parents who yell at their kids when the kids don’t play Frisbee football right? Should we begin to pretend that Frisbee football is a test of character?
Well, if these things would not improve Frisbee football, why is it that people think that they are necessary and appropriate for baseball?
Music, like sport, is instinctive to us, exists in all cultures, and will never disappear. There are primal and sophisticated forms of music and of sport, which could also be called vibrant and calcified, or youthful and moribund. There is a spectrum in these activities that runs from vibrant, primal and youthful to sophisticated, calcified and moribund. All sports and all forms of music move across that spectrum, crawling toward obsolescence. Rock and roll has moved significantly to the right on that spectrum in the last 40 years; the very term "classic rock" suggests this. Football has lurched dramatically to the right.
But football and rock and roll are not as far advanced on this death march as is baseball. Baseball players, like symphony musicians, are fantastically highly trained, and go through many layers of selection and rejection before they reach the highest levels. A baseball game is extremely expensive to stage. Even a youth baseball game now is relatively expensive to stage. Kids no longer perceive that they can play baseball in an empty lot with rocks and pieces of junk to mark the bases. Baseball now can only be played on manicured fields, which cities pay to maintain because youth baseball is perceived as a social good. The baseball audience is aging.
This is not a jeremiad. Baseball has massive resources, and is in little danger of passing away in the next generation through calcification and decay. But neither does this represent a simple problem, that can be addressed by advertising targeted at young people. Both baseball and classical music, for their own good, need to think deeply about how to re-energize themselves, how to make themselves younger, more vibrant, more accessible and less expensive. It’s called hardening of the arteries. It kills us all sooner or later.
Map People and Directions People
There are two kinds of people. There are people who, when they need to go somewhere that they have not gone before, want to look at a map and carry a map with them, and want to fix the key elements of the map in their minds before they get in the car, and then there are people who want directions, want to know where and when to turn left and how far it is and what landmarks to look for along the way.
Most people, I suspect, are "directions" people. My father was a "directions" person. I am very much a "map" person. I am, in truth, such a radical "map" person that I am puzzled by why anyone would be a "directions" person, although, as I said, I believe that most people are. I remember this would drive me batty, even when I was twelve years old. If you asked my father where anything was, he would say, "Well, go down to the corner there where you see the gas station, turn left and go about three, three and half miles until you get past the Kerns farm, etc., etc." I wanted to know where it was; if I knew where it was, I could figure out how to get there.
A couple who is close to us—let’s call them Harry and Margaret--are directions people. They get lost constantly. One time when my son Isaac was about ten we were all going to beach, which was three miles from where we were staying, and Harry and Margaret’s kids wanted to ride with us, so I told Isaac to ride with them. "Noooo," he said, almost whining, although Isaac was never a whiner. "I don’t want to go with Harry and Margaret. They’ll get lost. They always get lost."
"Isaac," I said dismissively. "It’s a five-minute drive. You can’t get lost between here and there." Sure enough, they showed up 45 minutes late, with Isaac in a foul mood. There was a roundabout between us and the beach, and they got off the roundabout going the wrong way.
Of course, map people get lost sometimes, too, but when we got lost, we can figure out another way to get there. When directions people get lost, they’re up shit creek. I remember one time I was talking to a group of old people in a small town in Kansas, like an Elks club or something. Somehow this guy in the audience started talking about "directions" to get to Kaufman stadium, and how to avoid getting lost on the way there. He was basically asking for the best set of directions. I started to laugh at this idea, but then this other old fart gets up and starts offering the "right" directions to get to Kaufman Stadium without getting lost, and then this other guy joins in, and in two minutes I realize that I’m the only person in the room that doesn’t think that way.
Small town people who have never lived in a city or spent any time in a city tend to think of a city—even a relatively small city like Kansas City--as a vast and trackless maze through which one travels by moving from landmark to landmark like a series of bread crumbs. People like me get lost on purpose as a way of supplementing our mental map. "I know this way to get there," I think, "so I won’t go that way; I’ll go this other way, because I don’t know how to get there going this other way, so I need to figure that out." For people like me (and my son Isaac) the smart phone era is the greatest thing ever, because you can carry a world map in your pocket, so you can never get truly lost; therefore your ability to go this way and the other way and try to find your way back home by instinct and gut feel is not limited by a fear of getting truly lost.
I was thinking about this, and. …well, first of all, sabermetrics is a "mapping" exercise; it’s not a "directions" exercise. Sabermetrics is built out of statistics in the same sense that Maps are built out of combinations of directions. Sabermetrics doesn’t tell you when you should bunt and when you should hit and run. It gives you values associated with the bunt, and then it’s up to you to find your way. Statistics are directions. Sabermetrics is a map.
But thinking more broadly than that. . .isn’t it true in life in general that there are "directions" people, and there are "maps" people? "Directions" people want an education that prepares them for a job. "Maps" people just want to get an education, and then we’ll figure out how to put it to use. "Directions" people want a religion that tells them in plain language what is right and what is wrong. "Maps" people want a set of religious values that helps them navigate through a troubled world. "Directions" people want to find the "right" woman to go through life with, Mr. Right or Mrs. Right. "Map" people are just looking over the opposite sex, trying to find something they like. We’ll find somebody we like and we’ll make it work.
Part of our political mess is caused by the fact that the Republican Party is directions-oriented with regard to social policy, but map-oriented with regard to economic issues, whereas the Democratic Party is map-based with regard to social issues, but directions-dependent in the economic area. This doesn’t make any sense, but it’s true.
I suspect that it has to be true, because, as I was saying before, the nature of a two-party system is that each party picks up whatever it needs to pick up to survive. When a political party is strong it becomes arrogant, intolerant and thus vulnerable; when it is out of power it becomes humble, open, and thus resourceful. In this way political parties, over time, evolve into carefully-balanced but inherently irrational alliances between interest groups and political philosophies. If either party became entirely map-oriented and the other entirely directions-oriented, one party would probably crush the other, and it is not in the nature of a two-party system that this can happen easily. When it does happen, the defeated party will merely spring up again under a different name and with a different collection of interest groups and political slogans, and the system will begin again, over time, evolving toward a 50-50 stalemate.