Posts Tagged ‘sports


I’m starting to understand Boston hockey

I can’t really get into hockey, but I can understand why some people would. I mean hey, its a fast paced sport right? Who cares if it feels like scoring is too hard and that a goalie, if fat enough, would make goals a physical impossibility.

What I was really having trouble understanding is why people would get so into a team as a representation of their identity. There have been studies that show that people invest emotionally in teams in powerful ways (see also here), and can even lose self esteem when their team loses. And I’ve been all around Boston the past week hearing comments about Bruins that are just about impossible for me to relate to.

But then today I had a minor breakthrough into seeing how a team could unite people in such a profound way. (By the way some studies say that its better for your psychological health to strongly identify with a team. I guess I must be living a pretty unhappy life. ) The breakthrough came as I walked out of a building downtown and the security guard was watching the game on his laptop. I asked who was winning, and his grumpy looking face lit up like a bulb, as he told me some various facts about the game, a good number I did not understand. So then I walked outside and some tough construction dudes were working a crane, but one guy was standing outside a bar window watching the game. I tried my tactic again and asked who was winning. Again, a bright eyed response, as if I were a long lost buddy. Must be that male bonding thing everyone is always talking about. But joking aside, I caught a real glimpse how when a city rallies around its team, the people of that city rally around each other. Kind of touching actually, but I still just cant’ stand hockey.



It should be illegal to inherit anything?

Megan McArdle at the Atlantic is really impressing me these days. Check this out: she argues that people should not be able to inherit anything. If rich grandaddy wants to give me money, he has to do it while he’s alive: he’s got to give me a gift. He cant’ just hold it in abeyance and have it turned over to me after he dies.

This isn’t really that new of a concept, and in fact some libertarians endorse it as a way to make people entitled to only what they “earn.” (scare quotes because what you earn is really hard to determine I think). Many liberals also like it because it seems to go after rich people and takes all their money away before they can give it away to their spoiled grandkids.

But there are a lot of issues. McArdle looks at the economic effects and claims that such a tax might be economically non-optimal because parents will work less hard because they can’t give away the excess that they don’t use when they die. Of course, kids will work harder, because that pepsico heir taking Econ 001, “the economics of being rich as hell” will have to get some real skills and make his own way. McArdle rightly says that parents are more productive than kids so the fire that is lit under the asses of kids would hardly make up for the slacking that would result from adults. But even that is a little deceptive. What if parents, rather than working less, expend more money on their kids while they’re alive. For instance, I could see a no-estate tax world filled with colleges that provide healthcare, career services, guaranteed jobs on campus after school, and a pension. These colleges would cost 400,000 over four years, but parents would pay them as a way of making sure their kids are safe and protected after they die. This transfer from savings to increased investment while alive would almost surely be economically inefficient. Better to save money to be used when needed rather than find ridiculous uses for it all before one dies. Think, if you had to spend all your money tomorrow, how happy could you really make yourself than if you could spend it over a period of a year, for example? Your happiness wouldn’t increase that much after you bought that first new car and the penthouse suite at all the las vegas casinos. There is only so much you can consume at once.

But one really good effect that McArdle doesn’t talk about, is that rich people would all of a sudden become very interested in the wider social world. If you can’t guarantee that your kid will live off your money, you might start to care about medicare and social security and take an interest in these policy problems. At the margins, you might even start to care more about things like the public school system (if you have a young kid and are afraid you might die soon). The public world would likely benefit from elite attention rather than indifference (or would elites make things even worse if they trained their eyes on social problems?)

There are a bunch of deeper philosophical questions too. One is: is the problem with rich people giving their money to their kids that they are giving some people a leg up who didn’t work for that leg up, or is it there something special about the way inheritance goes to people I value and not other people in need. What if, when I died, I put in my will that my fortune was to be given to a random person living below the poverty line. Should the government be able to tax away to its coffers. It really reinvigorates the whole debate about people’s entitlement to their money in any case. A 100% estate tax would basically that any money I don’t spend is de facto tax money. But why? What if I want my fortune to go to HIV research and not the USFG? See, I think the 100% estate tax gets some of its umph from the idea that people who benefit their own kids are blue-blooded selfish bastards who want to perpetuate a family lineage where a lot of people have first names like “Dale” and “Sebastian.”

HOWEVER, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, I think society should be thought of as a competition. Not a cutthroat, war of all against all type of competition, but like a basketball game; a fair but somewhat antagonistic arena where greatness can emerge and each participant can be honored for their good faith attempt to be great. So, I think an estate tax would further that goal, of making sure each person was put into a position where they are pushed to succeed for themselves. For the same reason I cringe when I see a parent spoiling their kid, I cringe when I see someone getting inordinate resources from their parents, and this means I cringe many times at myself, since I’ve been the beneficiary of their generosity. I’m not saying everyone has to fend for themselves. I think welfare, education and medicare, and on and on are similar to salary caps and free agent restrictions: they ensure everyone gets a shot to compete.


Should We Make Public Discouse Like A Basketball Game?

The NCAA tournament is in full swing, so here are some thoughts that merge basketball and politics.

Reading up on the daily grinding, yelling, screaming, name-calling, and deception of our political system is a very laborious affair. It’s so tiring, and I have often have to take a nap after reading all the ridiculous things going on. And then I have to write about them on this blog, to implore people to ignore the ridiculous and to focus on the true. In trying to ignore some of the things not worth commenting about, I end up having to comment about them. This is the unavoidable cycle that drives a lot of our supposed public “debate.” Is there a way out?

To get clear on a solution requires getting clear on the problem. I want to characterize public discourse as infected by the following two tendencies.

1. cynicism and the imputation of bad faith — For a while I kept a tally of this phenomenon, but I got so upset that I stopped. But basically, if you read an article that is critical of one party or politician, you will come to a point where the description of the issue stops, and the argumentation is supposed to begin, but all you find is something like “The explanation is simply that X does not want America to succeed,” or some such thing. And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself PAST the argument. That was it, just a bald assertion of bad faith.

I have interviewed now many people in government, and seen many more interviews, and not once has this been anyone’s motivation. Not once. Nonetheless, rampant cynicism abounds — the collective belief is that everyone who does not see it one’s own way must necessarily be devious and conniving. Never is there the thought that someone might sincerely think that something YOU THINK is incomprehensible, is actually a good way to do things. Trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible is where all argument (and all philosophy in fact) begins, and as a political culture, we seem just too plain exhausted to try for that anymore.

2. The focus on others rather than oneself. Even when arguments in our media culture do hone in tightly on an IDEA or a POLICY, they inevitably seek out the most easily dispelled mistake or the most the irrelevant factual error. At the very best, this debate usually targets some idea that someone or some party has as DUMB. Fine. All good discourse is going to require that you criticize flawed ideas, and sometimes you will have to criticize them quite harshly. However, there is a continued emphasis on trying to find out what one should not believe and what one should not endorse rather than helping people try to find a proposal that is complex, but nonetheless DOES MAKE SENSE. And, in fact, makes sense despite the wide variety of alternative views and arguments that are available to attack any position worth debating together as a society.

The media as I see it relentlessly (probably unintentionally) batters the brains of people into giving up ideas and turning against proposals. I’m not an Obama devotee, but the notion of hope is probably relevant here. At every turn the media drowns out, destroys, and smashes ideas into pulp, often with very bad arguments and often without any comparison to the alternatives. The average person is not only skeptical of politicians and media outlets, but even intellectually, skeptical that anything could ever work.

In short, there is very little emphasis on developing a positive view and growing it and defending it. This is also a metaphor for most of American culture today. There is never an interest in the sacrifice, or risk, or difficulty, required to BUILD SOMETHING. Whether it be something as quotidian as a marriage or a personality, or something as grand as a scientific theory or philosophical program (don’t misread me here. I don’t think philosophy and science is actually any more GRAND than everyday struggles like raising a family. I use the word because others would be tempted to. Sometimes I meet people who are like what is your, like, PHILOSOPHY, man. That’s not the right attitude a philosophy is just like any other activity such as becoming a great discus thrower or a good club promoter. You are growing something that will shed light on everything else; that will ripple throughout your daily consciousness).

So now the solution: make public debate more like sports. I don’t mean the “gamification” of politics (excuse this terrible word that some tech commentators insist on violently injecting into the vernacular). The reason is that there is a difference between the chicken-shitification or the farmvillification of important things. I.e., turning serious tasks into petty little simulations with make-believe rat pellets guiding us toward a social equilibrium of behavior. No, I mean an understanding of the attitude that comes from competition. I’ll outline it below and explain how it dispels the problems I raised above.

First, highly established competition is self-absorbed, and I mean that in a special way. What I mean is that a coach, before a game, NEVER talks about the other team. Whether they’re hurt, or whether they’re offense is bad, or whether they’re fans are cowardly, or whatever. The emphasis is always on the team and what it has accomplished. Listen to coaches interviewed right at halftime. They always talk about their team and what it can do and what confidence they have in the group of people they have GROWN over the course of the season. Sports is ruthlessly self-examining.

This is no accident. You can’t win unless you take a simple confidence toward your own abilities. In practice, you don’t sit idly, thinking about how all the other teams are ruining themselves with incorrect workout routines, injuries, or off-practice revelry. No, one SCREENS the opponent out. Mentally, a team is always with itself in a complete, but benign solipsism, just trying to make itself as good as possible, and then turning that power outward at the moment of competition.

Second, there is no cynicism. One knows that the other team is trying to win, just as much as one’s own team. And for the most part (there are some exceptions when a call is just awful) coaches never let their PLAYERS think about the refs or make excuses for themselves. Of course, the coach will curse and heckle, but never is this allowed to infect the players. For them, the game is as close as possible to a fair and pure test of each side’s heart and determination.

Also, and this is really key, opponents in sports often come to respect each other. How does this happen? I’m not really sure, but I think it is the result of a controlling attitude of anti-cynicism, that merges with the confidence that sports breeds.

So how to remake the political sphere according to the values of competition?

Well, for one thing — and this should come as no surprise — the parties must become more like sports teams. Heck, citizens must become like sports players. The temptation is to look elsewhere. To take great joy in seeing someone else falter or to see an idea that plainly doesn’t work, or a demagogue create controversy out of nothing. The temptation is to look OUT and AWAY and to get angry and self-righteous. This is the fuel of the worst sorts of engagements our society is capable of.

Rather, the attitude should be like sports. One should read, think, and learn, all the while growing a theory of an idea or a position. When confronted, one can defend it, but the search, just like a practice, screens out distractions.

In this quasi-utopian world I’m imagining, I would not have to sit here and blog about all the ad hominem attacks and poor arguments, because no one would focus on them. They would dissipate like a calorie of heat in the endless cold of space. No one would turn their head and no one would glue their eyes to the TV. Chicanery and nonsense would not be combated or called out or suppressed. Rather it would cease to exist for the public at all (notice that I’ve made this argument before when I’ve argued that we should be zen-like in our approach to politics, by which I mean we should act against mudslinging THROUGH INACTION).

Further though, cynicism would disappear. Of course, the media would have to, as I’ve argued it shoud, reshape itself as an ump or a ref, faithfully recording point and counterpoint in a great national debate on serious issues. This would combat cynicism, but so would the focus on competition in its true form, which as we’ve seen, can generate respect. Larry Byrd was one of the first people to call Magic Johnson when the latter found out about his infection with the HIV virus. In a way, I think the competitive urge of two great competitors to destroy one another is the flip side of love. It is love in its other guise.

There are flaws with my proposal, and I’ll present them in the spirit of combating cynicism.

First, there are time when personal attacks and imputations of bad faith are needed. This happens in sports too. Every once in a while one coach will say that another coach has poor player control or that the coach encourages “dangerous” play. This is a last ditch effort and it is sometimes necessary. It is necessary in our culture too. It’s important to call out bigots or obstructionists, etc. I just think the threshold for doing so should be high. Better to keep our noses to the ground and work on building something rather than indulging tit for tat exchanges about words, comments, and bad faith.

Also, there is a real elitism to my proposal. In a way, I’m suggesting that we make our public sphere like a debating society where everyone observes decorum etc. But what about times when there are people undergoing oppression in the streets? Should such people await the conclusion of an austere round of discussion before rioting, or trying to retake a modicum of decency and power?

I have no answer to this objection, because again, there are times when debate and discussion break down. When the bounds of rationality and public-spirited discourse are twisted and only action can break them free.

One response I have though is that notice how ANTI-ELITIST sports are in general. If anything is these days, SPORTS are for the people. So perhaps there is a way to elevate everyone in the political sphere by treating our discourse with as much reverence as we give Sunday football (and actually, I think that would be a bad model, because sunday football gets infected with all sorts of other issues that are unrelated to “pure” competition). On this model, we are all participants in a roughly fair media system and to make it more fair, we must attend to our ideas and then be prepared to engage with others with the respect given to opponents on those same ideas.



Two random things

First, I saw this article/movie and I honestly don’t know what to think. Are these people just insane? Probably not, but I do wonder what the relationship of their activity is to sports, kind like I wonder what the relationship of cults to religions is.

Also, I came across this parasitic disease that apparently makes mice less fearful of cats. What a brilliant and random evolutionary mechanism on the part of the virus: having your host bring you closer to the organism that will help you finish out your life cycle. Also, humans can get this disease too and though this has no scientific basis, I think the connection to “cat ladies” should be obvious.


Are institutions becoming counterproductive?

I think this thought has been kicking around in my brain for a long time, but today things coalesced into this post. You see, I was sitting in a meeting for one of my jobs. I work in a pedagogical role at Tufts (that’s all I’ll say for fear of offending superior or giving the wrong idea to colleagues who I might read this, but I doubt that will happen). Anyway, there was a training meeting where we talked about various issues and what to do going forward.

My main problem is that I think institutions, jobs, organizations, are losing their purpose. As always, I hope to make this vague rhetoric more clear. Take an ordinary institution like a charity in Africa. Presumably the value of this organization is that it promotes some good; it helps people in Africa. This charitable mission is the reason that some people work for the organization full time (of course they work for the money, but most people who work for non-profits care about the mission of the organization to say the least) and why others give money to the organization so that, well, people can be hired to work full time. The organization is a MEANS to accomplishing some goal, and by pooling talent, communication, money, and probably most of all, coordination, the goal of healthy people in Africa can be pursued more effectively than if each Afrophile tried to help on their own.

All this is perfectly intelligible, but I think there is a growing cultural shit to considering institutions valuable IN THEMSELVES so that there is value in merely participating in groups. For one good example, take the interest that college and high school kids have in being part of various clubs and groups that EVERYONE KNOWS don’t actually do anything. Ok too cynical; let me scale that back. Some clubs do great things, but those are the clubs that people join because they want to do the thing that the organization promotes. On the other hand, we have a word for people who join organizations just to be a part of an organization. The word is fake.

And this is kind of what was going on in my meeting today. We had a meeting to talk about issue that either a) any person with commonsense could resolve or b) were irresolvable and should not be legitimized by spending time on them. For example, someone talked about a student that was being difficult and so could not be helped effectively by the service this group that I work for offers. And I’m sitting there thinking WELL THEN WHAT CAN YOU DO? We run an organization that helps people who want help, and of course you can go along we in seeking out people who need help but forget, or are weak-willed, or need a nudge. Fine. But if someone using a voluntary service is just screwing the service up then what more is there to say. And if there is more to say, is it worth saying.

You see, I think the critique can be deepened. An organization is meant to act as a mechanical lever by allowing a group of people to be more effective at something than they would otherwise be trying to fly solo. But remember, flying solo is very effective for many things. We had a bunch of announcements in this meeting in which various individual problems were addressed in front of 20 people. But if only one person has a problem and it’s not contributing to the effectiveness of the other members, than things would be much more effective if the one person with a problem just invested time in finding out the answer on his or her own by talking to the right person or just thinking about the problem for a little bit.

Now of course, there are reasons why its good to air concerns to the group because other people might not have encountered the problems YET, but could benefit if they knew how to react ahead of time. A good point, but there is a real information cost balance between having the organization take time in promulgating information and holding meetings and then having individual members of the organization find stuff out on there own. For some information, it will be easier to disseminate and email, and hold meetings, but other information is best discovered by NOT having the group do anything and letting members come to the information as needed. If the information isn’t widely useful, then you end up wasting the time of people who didn’t need the information to get it to people who do.

Let me back track for one second. I said institutions are only a means to achieving a goal, and that isn’t quite right. There is something uniquely valuable about sharing ideas and decisions with peers toward a common end (for one thing it is a training ground for democracy and a wellspring of mutual respect). However, this value, the value of working in concert, disappears if everyone in the group is working for the group WITH THE GOAL OF GETTING THAT BENEFIT.

For group life to be uniquely valuable, the members have to be part of the group not in order to get the benefits of group life, but to advance the interests of the group. I’ve used this analogy a million times on this site and I hope its starting to creep into people’s lives because its a big difference. Take sports. Sports are uniquely valuable because they teach special lessons. But you can’t get the special lessons of sports by going into each game and practice trying to get those special lessons. The lessons will run away from you and you’ll never find them. You have to train, struggle, and in the end, desire VERY INTENSELY, to win. By doing all this, you will, as a side effect, grasp the specific value of sports.This is not to say that there is not value in “playing for fun.” There is, but it’s not the same type of value that is only available for a certain type of attitude.

The same is true with institutions, and if people forget that they have to join groups and clubs and whatever FOR THE THINGS THOSE CLUBS DO, then we’re going to slowly fall into a kind of self-congratulatory stasis in which everyone does group business all day without there being anything at stake and without the goal itself animating the minds and hearts of the participants.




Federer, competition, and philosophy

This is a really wonderful article by David Foster Wallace, titled “Federer as Religion,” though it might as well be called “Roger Federer as philosophy.”

This article interacts with a large number of philosophical topics, including the nature of subjective experience as well as the value of competition.

I’ll just be brief, since I’ve talked about these issues many times on this blog.

First, Wallace focuses for a time on the nature of competition, and he puts his interpretation of sports with characteristic craftsmanship. He says that sports is the reconciliation of human beings with their body which results in beauty. I don’t agree, but I think this is close. The claim of beauty I think is right on, and the focus on the body is appropriate but not the last word. As I’ve said before, the value of sports is parasitic on the value of competition, which I think is the social creation of excellence or beauty. So on that score, I agree. Tennis is a competitive sport in which beauty is created out of the opposing movements of the players. However, the body is important simply because sports is a type of bodily activity. Chess would involve beauty too I believe, thought the emphasis would be on the mind, which again, is the location of the competitive spirit.

Wallace talks about how subjectively, tennis for a really good player must feel very different than it can be physically described. In terms of physics, shit’s moving really fast in really unpredictable directions. For the player though, a type of pattern and rhythm is more appropriate. Skills are worlds unto themselves, and of course its hyperbole to say that the laws of physics are suspended, because they are not. Nonetheless, they seem strangely irrelevant.

And this leads to another philosophical point, which is that the world as seen from the point of view of a person may not be comprehensible to physics or science. And I mean in this a very simple way: take ethics, religion, morality, etiquette, or whatever you want. These things involve NORMS of conduct, which science has no place for. This is because daily life is regulated by oughts. You ought to have helped me, I ought to have held the door for you. The teacher isn’t required to do that. I am obligated to pay the rent. These are part and parcel of our daily experience, yet science can say nothing about them.

The goal of the ethicist is to show how obligation can be made consistent with science AFTER ALL, but at the start the beauty and the mystery of ethics is similar to Foster Wallace’s point about Federer and Michale Jordan, who are both symbols of the way that subjective experience re-enchants the world to us, and that this, like ethics, is a religions experience or sorts. I think its primarily a philosophical experience (which doesn’t exclude it being religious also).


Sports Rivalries

I was recently at a party where I talked with Terrence Johnson, a young guy who works for the northeastern sports network as a starting reporter.

He was filled with really down to earth wisdom about sports, but my conversation with me (in which I just shut up and listened given my lack of knowledge) left me with this interesting fact.

Sports rivalries are important, especially in college, for reasons of monitoring costs. You see, I always thought that sports rivalries were just the result of poorly directed feelings of frustration or anger on the part of immature college kids. Why don’t we like the school down the way? Who the hell knows. But it turns out that rivalries often spur rivals to monitor each other closely, and that this monitoring often results in disclosures of abuse of NCAA rules regarding player compensation, scholarships, or academic standards.

Since every school probably has at least one rival, the vehement and undirected dislike of a rival school serves to set up an unbribeable and inescapable watchdog. Interesting.