Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Sunday, July 15, 2018
Better information in baseball has produced more boring baseball, but it is hardly reason to impose new rules
George Will has a column that perfectly represents my view on what's happening in baseball and the reaction against it:
What baseball people call “analytics,” and less-scientific people call information, has produced all this: Particular hitters have particular tendencies; defenses adjust accordingly. Now, let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate that more information is always better than less. But for the moment, information is making offense anemic. So, there is a proposal afoot — this is fascism — to ban shifts, to say that there must be two infielders on either side of second base, or even that as the pitch is delivered all infielders must be on the infield dirt. This would leave some, but much less, ability to manage defenses. It would, however, short-circuit market-like adjustments.
Incessant radical shifting will persist until it is moderated by demand summoning a supply of some Rod Carew-like hitters. A Hall of Famer, Carew was a magician who wielded a bat like a wand, spraying hits hither and yon, like Wee Willie (“Hit ’em where they ain’t”) Keeler. The market is severely meritocratic, so some hitters who cannot modify their tendencies and learn to discourage shifts by hitting away from them might need to consider different careers.
Baseball — the game on the field, not just the business side — resembles a market system because constantly evolving strategies create demands for different tactics, and thus different skills, which are then supplied by people and teams eager to excel in the new forms of competition. Before restricting managers’ and players’ interesting choices by limiting shifts (and certainly before softening the ball; or moving the pitcher more than 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate), give the market — freedom for fan-pleasing ingenuity and adaptation — a chance.
There is plenty of interest among the sports punditocracy and Official Baseball to tinker to "improve" baseball. Modern man cannot see a problem without wanting to fix it. Sometimes, the fix makes problems worse, so (sometimes), as Will says, if it is broken, don't fix it; sometimes, the problem will fix itself over time. More information about what happens on the field led to new strategies, which incentivized players to adapt. It makes sense to let the "market" fix this by having smart coaches and players react to the changes that are supposedly ruining the game today by taking advantage of inefficiencies in the game. The next adaptations will make baseball more fun again.

Saturday, July 14, 2018
Even the media's mistakes are biased
Twitchy: "isn’t it strange that when a reporter gets something wrong, it’s always something intended to make the Trump administration look bad, uninformed, or uncaring? Why is it that mistakes in reporting never go the other direction?" The most charitable answer is confirmation bias. "Facts" that confirm the preconceived notions of reporters are likely to be repeated without double-checking whereas facts that do not are likely met with skepticism and thus an endless searching for validation.

Liberal policy on 'asylum-seekers'
The Liberal policy on what was once called refugees is to call critics of their ham-fisted handling of the issue unCanadian and imply they are bigots: Immigration Minister calls Ontario minister unCanadian and the Prime Minister's principal adviser calls critics alt-right. Both of them can sod off.

Friday, July 13, 2018
Ledeen: Left loses and turns against itself
I don't agree with Michael Ledeen, but it doesn't strike me as far-fetched as my generally "things-won't-get-that-bad" inclination would typically react against:
If I had to predict near-term American politics, I’d forecast an anti-leftist electoral rout this fall, with a nasty period of infighting and restructuring of the Democrat Party to follow. To be sure, it’s a very volatile world and lots of unexpected things can take place, but for the moment the Dems look like big-time losers. It seems that the leftist takeovers of the media and the education system are running out of steam. I’ll not be astonished at violence in the streets over the Kavanaugh nomination, but I don’t think it will lead to mass protests of the sort that accompanied the McGovern disaster. Worst of all for the Dems and their “intellectual” fellow-travelers, their distortion of the history of the past couple of centuries has caught up with them, and they are now speaking and writing on behalf of the modern world’s biggest losers.
I don't think conservatism is in good shape in most of the West, but the Left is probably in a worse way. The Left is a crusading political movement in most of its forms, and is ripe for turning on itself. Superficially, the conditions appear favourable for a victory for the extreme Left and when they come up short, it is not implausible they turn inward amongst themselves. If this happens -- even if it is something short of "violence in the streets" -- conservatives should not take the self-immolation of the socialists, progressives, and modern liberals as a sign that the Right has won. Electoral victories are both 1) ephemeral and 2) possible despite the flaws and shortcomings of the victorious side. And electoral politics are not made better when one side is irrationally disconnected from issues that affect and concern large swathes of voters.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018
There is no such thing as a labour shortage
CNBC reports:
The number of small business that aren't able to find enough workers has matched the highest level ever recorded.
The percentage of small companies not able to fill open positions hit 36 percent in June, according to the NFIB Research Center, matching the survey's record high set in November 2000. (The data goes back to 1973.)
“Labor markets are very tight, for both skilled and unskilled workers,” wrote William Dunkelberg and Holly Wade, chief economist and director of research at NFIB, respectively. “More firms are looking for workers than workers looking for a job. And the hiring strength is in industries that pay well: construction, manufacturing, and financial services.”
To CNBC's credit, the phrase labour shortage does not appear in the story. Often it will in these types of articles. But there is no such thing as a labour shortage. Dunkelberg, who is quoted, gets to the heart of the matter: pay. Hiring strength is in industries that compensate labour well. Instead of saying there is a labour shortage, it is more accurate to say that firms can't fill positions at the wages they are willing to pay. That's a different thing. Companies shouldn't be so parsimonious. As Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers and current economics professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, tweets:

Monday, July 09, 2018
SCOTUS appointment
It sounds like President Donald Trump has decided that the next Supreme Court Justice (assuming Senate approval) will be Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, or Raymond Michael Kethledge. My preference is Coney Barrett, mostly for political and personality reasons, although Kavanaugh would be an excellent choice, too. (Coney Barrett now famously has seven kids, which would make her an heir to Scalia's spot on the court in a different way -- he had nine children.) I simply do not know enough about Kethledge to have an opinion. J.D. Vance had Kavanaugh at Yale law school in 2011 (and his wife later clerked for him) and wrote in the Wall Street Journal this weekend to endorse his former teacher:
His judicial record spans just about every important area of the law, and conservatives should be happy with the results. He sided with the Trump administration in rejecting the American Civil Liberties Union’s demand that the government facilitate an immediate abortion for an illegal-alien teenager in federal custody. He rejected the Obama administration’s attempt to coerce religious groups to provide contraception to employees. He stood by Scalia’s strong originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment and rejected balancing tests designed to undermine the right to keep and bear arms. He upheld labeling requirements on foreign-made products designed to protect American manufacturers and farmers. He has protected police officers acting in good faith against unwarranted damage verdicts, most recently in a case in which the Supreme Court vindicated his position in a 9-0 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.
A Justice Kavanaugh could also be influential beyond the bench. Like a lot of conservative law students, I acquired my conservative constitutionalism after reading Justices Scalia and Thomas rebut their more progressive colleagues. The conservatives simply have the better of the argument, I often thought. Persuasive power requires not only sound principles but intellectual strength, rhetorical skill, and a willingness to engage with an opponent’s best arguments. From the way he worked in the classroom to his 12 years on the D.C. Circuit, Judge Kavanaugh regularly reveals those qualities.
It seems that both Coney Barrett and Kavanaugh would be fine choices, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a female vote joining the conservative majority. That's blatant politics, but SCOTUS has become a highly politicized institution. That said, I don't really like Ross Douthat's political analogy in the New York Times this weekend: Kavanaugh is "the traditional establishment-front-runner role," Coney Barrett is the "social conservative insurgent," and Kethledge is the "populist dark horse."
If I had to make a prediction I'd pick Kethledge. The other two were early "front-runners" and quite often the actual pick is not an early favourite. Douthat also reported that Coney Barrett's interview with the president didn't go well. Furthermore, Trump might be inclined to pick a non-Ivy League-educated judge as part of his own populist image, although the President does seem impressed by credentials like Ivy League education.

Sunday, July 08, 2018
2020 watch (HRC edition)
The New York Post reports that Hillary Clinton's PAC is active:
Five times in the last month alone, she sent e-mails touting her super PAC’s role in combating President Trump. Most seized on headline events, such as the family-separation issue at the southern border.
And the day after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, Clinton introduced a newly minted resistance partner. Called Demand Justice, it promises to protect “reproductive rights, voting rights and access to health care” by keeping Senate Democrats united in opposing any conservative Trump nominee.
The instant, in-house nature of Demand Justice was reflected by the name of its executive director: Brian Fallon, Clinton’s campaign press secretary.
In truth, Fallon’s role doesn’t tell us something we didn’t know. Onward Together, formed in May of 2017, is a Clinton 2020 campaign vehicle in waiting.
Its homepage says the group “is dedicated to advancing the vision that earned nearly 66 million votes in the last election.”
HRC was never going to retire quietly. Her campaign infrastructure is a valuable asset that could be employed on behalf of a key Clinton ally, kid, or herself. I think there is more chance that Chelsea (she will be 40 in 2020) runs than Hillary (she'd be 73 on election day), but you never know with the former first lady's ambition.

Koko and other gorillas (probably) do not have faculty for language
Oliver Kamm in The Times:
Here’s the opening sentence of a report we published last month: “Humans around the world were last night mourning a gorilla who used sign language, played the recorder and once befriended the comedian Robin Williams.”
It’s about the death of a gorilla called Koko, aged 46, who reputedly had broken the barrier separating communication between humans and non-human primates. Koko was born at San Francisco Zoo and lived at a research facility in California. According to our report, Koko “captivated the public when she began communicating with humans through a modified form of American Sign Language”.
It’s a tantalising notion that the faculty of language may be attainable by other species. However, the case of Koko does not demonstrate this. Our report, by Ben Hoyle, scrupulously injected this note of caution: “Some experts questioned the extent to which people projected human feelings on to messages from Koko and the handful of other primates who learnt sign language . . . Others insisted that the animals had broken down barriers between their world and ours.”
The sceptics are right. The people making extravagant claims about Koko are typically not linguists. This matters not just because they lack expertise but because they misunderstand the communication that the primates are supposedly using. The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker pointed this out in his great book The Language Instinct (1994). American Sign Language (ASL), like any other sign language, isn’t a system of gestures and pointing. It’s a complete system of grammar with a full range of meanings. The gestures by Koko and other primates were just that: signals that the researchers read messages into ...
The crucial bit in all the stories about Koko is that she was not, in fact, using any recognised sign language. Kluger claims without qualification that Koko had been taught ASL but this is not true. Other reports (including ours) refer to Koko having acquired a “modified form of ASL”. That caveat matters. All human languages, whether spoken or signed, and all dialects of those languages, have syntax. Koko’s “language” didn’t. It’s well known that some non-human species can communicate among themselves (bees do it by movement) but the claim that some non-human primates have acquired language is huge and I know of no evidence for it. Journalists should responsibly report expert opinion rather than spin quasi-mystical fantasies.
Kamm points out that when reporters say a gorilla can communicate with humans, they are making a scientific claim for which there is little evidence. We like cute stories, but both journalists and the public should not sacrifice facts for the sake of a nice story.

Friday, July 06, 2018
Chequers summit
The Daily Telegraph: "No 10 warns taxis on standby for ministers who resign today over Brexit as May exerts authority." The paper reports: "Number 10 has told ministers arriving at Chequers that business cards for local taxi firms are in the foyer of Chequers so they can make the 40 mile journey back to London if they resign and lose the right to use their ministerial cars." It also reports that unnamed Downing Street sources insist Prime Minister Theresa May can survive the resignation of one or two ministers. We'll see.
The meeting at the prime minister's official country residence -- was it held there so minister's wouldn't resign and be awkwardly stuck so far from the city -- and dust-up is being noticed in Brussels. And in a way that may not hurt Britain. The Guardian reports:
The EU is prepared to change its Brexit position if Theresa May softens her negotiating red lines, Michel Barnier has said.
The offer from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator could be seen as a strategic olive branch coming just as the prime minister tries to strike a deal between the warring sides of her cabinet at Chequers.

Thursday, July 05, 2018
Brexit means Brexit. Or not.
The Telegraph reports:
At least six Cabinet ministers are expected to confront Theresa May on Friday after it emerged that her Brexit plan will tie the UK to EU rules for the foreseeable future and put any US trade deal in jeopardy.
On Thursday afternoon the Prime Minister's plans were finally sent to the Cabinet who learned that Mrs May was proposing that Britain sign a legally-binding agreement to follow EU standards on many goods after Brexit, including food.
The Telegraph also understands that British judges will have to follow rulings from European judges "when relevant", under the plans.
The cabinet ministers could include Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, and Esther McVey, all of whom were present for a meeting convened by BoJo. I expect that Johnson and Gove are also meeting with backbenchers who could be ready to revolt.
There's a cabinet meeting on Friday. It should be tense. It is premature to say May is going to knocked off her perch as leader, but her hold becomes more tenuous by the day.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018
Deconstructing the administrative state
The Brookings Institute has a short report on "Where and why has agency rulemaking declined under Trump?" and finds that overall there are significantly fewer "major" and "non-major" rules being proposed by the Trump administration compared to the first years of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. For the record: Bush enacted 54 major rules and a total of 3,374 rules in his first year, Obama enacted 69 major rules and a total of 2,024 rules, and Trump enacted 30 major rules and 1,293 total rules. (Not stated in the report is that most administrations impose more rules near the end of their administration.) While not possible to tell from the numbers, which the Brookings' authors admit, the gap in rulemaking might be even larger than the numbers suggest as it is likely more of the Trump administration's rule changes include eliminating existing regulations, which gets counted in the tally.

Wimbledon's near ballboy shortage
In 1969, the New York Times reported on the fact Wimbledon almost did not have enough ballboys to work the tennis tournament. (Girls were not allowed to chase balls and roll them back to the sidelines until 1977.) The story is quaint for two notable reasons: the unironic sympathetic reporting that tennis players might have to chase their own stray balls and the description of the source of many of the teenage boys -- "children who are orphans or from inadequate families" -- who were co-opted to help.

Democracy in America
The New York Times reports that until this year, 20 members of the House of Representatives have not faced a primary challenge going back to 2006, and 13 of them haven't faced a primary challenger since 2004. Of those who haven't faced a challenger since John Kerry was the Democratic presidential candidate, 11 are Democrats. Of the seven who haven't faced a primary challenger since 2008, three are Republicans. The Times reports:
Some House members have run unopposed for nearly three decades. Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, for example, has never faced an in-party primary opponent since being elected in 1990.
Less than 10 percent of incumbents get a serious primary challenger, though it’s higher for Republicans, at 20 percent, according to Robert G. Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University.
Notably, six of the 20 Congressmen faced a primary challenger this year, and Joseph Crowley (D, NY) lost last week, illustrating a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment. Of the 20 candidates who haven't faced a challenger since 2008, Crowley is the only incumbent to lose.

Monday, July 02, 2018
America among most dangerous places in world for women says report; immigrants suggest otherwise*
A Reuters report finds the United States is the 10th most dangerous country in the world for women. Jezebel reports:
A 2018 survey of 548 women’s issues experts (aid professionals, academics, healthcare staff, non-government workers, policy-makers, development specialists, social commentators, etc.) conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found India to be the most dangerous country in the world for women.
Afghanistan and Syria followed in second and third, respectively—and the only Western nation to break the top 10 is where I’m presently seated: the United States of America. The U.S. ranked “joint third” with Syria when participants were asked where women are most at risk for sexual harassment, violence and coercion, which Reuters attributes to the #MeToo movement—more American women are coming forward with their stories of abuse ...
The Reuters Foundation poll focused on six key areas: healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking. India topped half of the categories: “the risk of sexual violence and harassment against women, the danger women face from cultural, tribal and traditional practices, and the country where women are most in danger of human trafficking including forced labour, sex slavery and domestic servitude.”
Even if the United States did crack the top 10, it would be an order of magnitude difference from the top of the table.
Writing for CNBC, Rashmi Singh takes issue with the methodology, noting that the survey is just an opinion of a bunch of perhaps unrepresentative and often self-appointed experts.
*A little more than half of immigrants in recent years have been women.