Sunday, July 17, 2016

How To Use This Mets Roster

The Mets just recalled Michael Conforto from AAA Las Vegas, with fellow left-handed outfielder Brandon Nimmo being sent down in his place. (The latter move follows as a matter of course; Nimmo, a top prospect, needs to get consistent playing time, which he's definitely not going to get with the Mets with Conforto back.) Conforto was shockingly great last year after being called up directly from AA, was Ted Williams levels of great in April this year, and then was pitcher-with-a-bit-of-pop levels of awful from May 1st onward. May 1st was the day when he was kept in the lineup against Madison Bumgarner, one of the best left-handed starters in the world. I dunno if that's what caused the slump, but it makes for an awfully convenient marker. Anyway, he went down and was raging hot at AAA (his first exposure to the level! actually!), so now he's back. Makes sense.

Except it creates a bit of a sticky situation regarding the outfield configuration. Conforto is strictly a corner outfielder; until his stint in Vegas he had only ever played left field as a professional. Curtis Granderson is, at this point, also a corner outfielder, and like Conforto he's left-handed. Yoenis Cespedes, meanwhile, is the Mets' best position player. To start the year, he was playing a lot of center field, flanked by Conforto in left and Granderson in right, with the team thinking it could live with Cespedes's below-average defense in center in return for getting those three bats into the lineup simultaneously. But Cespedes keeps being banged up with minor injuries, and he suspects that the toll center field takes on his legs may be contributing to that. So they'd really like to keep him in left field as often as possible, where, as it happens, he's a Gold Glove defender. That, of course, leaves them with no center fielders, but not to worry, because we've got Juan Lagares, who ought to be a legitimate contender for the Platinum Glove award (given to the Gold Glover in each league who's the best overall defensive player) any time he plays a full season, and who's also been hitting well to start the second half of the season (as well as on the entire year to date). Great! We've got four legitimately major league quality starting outfielders! Hooray!

...except, of course, you only typically play three outfielders. I mean, you could play four of them, but then you'd only have three infielders, which is probably a bad idea. So we have four deserving candidates for three spots. Whaddaya do?

Here's what: you play everyone. Some of the time.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Concerning those Polls

So, um. There's no real way to sugarcoat it: the polls right now look bad. We're mostly into the general election now; Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton is the basically-also-presumptive Democratic nominee. This match-up has been polled extensively since last summer, when it (to be more precise, the Trump side of it) first became plausible. And Clinton has led in the polls, constantly. At the worst of her email scandal last August, this got down to maybe a 1-point lead, but then it got bigger and for most of 2016 it's been pretty substantial. In late March Hillary was up by more than 10 point, on average. As recently as mid-April it was still around 9%.

Now it's 2%. This is, um, scary. The only thing that's made Trump's victory in the Republican primary anything other than utterly terrifying has been the thought that, of course, he's not going to win. Right now, if you look at the polls... yikes. It doesn't look especially slam-dunk that he's not going to win. And the question is what to make of this.

Obviously, given my nature, I'm going to say that we shouldn't worry too much, not commensurate with how bad it would be if we were entering this election with only a +2% advantage anyway. And I do think that's right. Equally obvious, though, is the fact that we should be somewhat worried, and that something about this current wave of bad polls is telling us that there is maybe more of a chance that things go the wrong way than we thought.

But the key to understanding what the polls are saying right now, I think, is that they're saying a different thing from a month ago. And from two months ago, and three, and four. That means we need to ask, what's changed? And there's a clear answer: Trump has wrapped up his nomination fight, while Clinton hasn't. And the Democratic side is getting nasty. We can see this in the polls, too. Bernie's hypothetical lead over Trump grew wider at about the same time Hillary's did, earlier in 2016, suggesting that that shift was caused by something about Trump (i.e., he got less popular). But right now, Bernie's lead hasn't budged. That tells me that the current shift is nothing to do with Trump, it's to do with Hillary. Note also that since mid-April, when it was Clinton 49%, Trump 40%, Trump's gone up just over 1%, while Clinton has dropped by nearly 6%. Again, this looks like a Clinton phenomenon, not a Trump phenomenon.

But I don't recall the last month as being a particularly bad one for Clinton. No new scandals, no major missteps. The latest rumor about the email thing is that she's been fully vindicated, though a formal announcement has yet to be made. Nothing's really been going on that would suggest Hillary's become that much more toxic a candidate... in the eyes of a disinterested observer, maybe. Not in the eyes of a Bernie supporter. And there's the rub: it seems basically certain that what's going on right now is that an awful lot of Bernie supporters aren't saying they'll vote for Hillary in the general election. (Nate Silver makes the same point in a series of tweets.)

So we basically know why the polls look like they do. The thing Hillary's people keep saying about how she's fighting two campaigns right now is correct. Trump has wrapped up the Republican side, and has gotten a bit of a boost from consolidating his party. More importantly, Hillary hasn't wrapped up her side yet, and the Democrats are if anything splintering a bit as our race draws to a close. So that's the big question of the election right now: once Hillary actually wins, and Bernie drops out, do his supporters go back to saying they'll all vote for her? Can he get them to do that? If so, then we're back to a baseline of Clinton +6% or +8% or maybe even +10%, and the election looks fairly comfortable, especially since I expect the campaign to wear well for her and ill for Trump. If not, then there's potentially a lot more danger.

I would really like to think that this is just a temporary phenomenon. Something similar happened to Obama back in 2008, when McCain had wrapped up the nomination but Hillary was still hanging on, and that too passed. And, hey--Trump got a boost when he wrapped up his nomination! And Republicans have way more reason to not support him than Democrats do to not support Hillary. Waaaaay more. You see prominent conservative pundits talking about how bad Trump is and thinking of running a third-party candidate or whatever. Bernie Sanders keeps repeating how much better than the Republicans Hillary is. It would just be bizarre if this election ends up with a Republican Party unified around Trump but a Democratic Party that can't unify around Hillary Clinton, one of its leading figures for damn near three decades now. So I remain skeptical that that's what's going to happen. Probably another month from now, the polls will start looking more like they should, and the best course of action until then is not to panic.

But I can't deny that the way the whole Sanders campaign is going right now has me pretty legitimately worried. I think he's done some real damage, and I think he's going to need to work real hard to repair it when the time comes. He'd bloody well better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the Foreign Policy Triangle

There's an interesting piece on Vox today trying to reconcile several different views of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (I can say that now, after her wins in New York and most of the other northeastern states that voted last night) in terms of her foreign policy attitudes. One view comes from a profile by Mark Landler in the New York Times Magazine titled, "How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk," whose thesis (which, as the Vox article notes, embodies the conventional wisdom) is that Hillary is a "super-hawk," "the last true hawk left in the race," with far more "appetite for military engagement abroad" than even any of the Republicans. Than even Ted "Let's See if Sand Can Glow in the Dark" Cruz. Yikes! The other view comes from the nuclear nonproliferation group Global Zero, on whose scorecard Clinton ranks far more dovish across the board than the Republicans, and is not so different from Bernie Sanders. This is a question of some considerable importance, and one that received perhaps less attention during the Democratic primary than it deserved, because if Hillary is, indeed, a super-hawk, that would be by far her greatest potential weakness with the Democratic electorate. (Bernie failed to make much hay with this, because he seemed remarkably out of his depth in foreign policy arguments, but it's still worth thinking about.)

The Vox piece ends up concluding that things are considerably more complicated than perhaps either of the opposing views would suggest:
[H]er past record, current policies, and ... larger worldview . . . reveal Clinton as someone who is exceptionally enthusiastic about the merits and potential of American engagement in the world. She is indeed, more than any other candidate in the race, a true believer in American power.

But Clinton's policies and past record suggest that her vision of power includes military force as well as diplomacy, so that while she is more likely to act in foreign affairs, she is also more likely to do so peacefully.
This is an area where, I think, viewing foreign policy through a simple one-dimensional spectrum is a real mistake. American attitudes toward foreign policy are best thought of as a triangle, with three distinct poles: isolationism, imperialism, and internationalism. Isolationism is simple: it's the view that we shouldn't really be involved in foreign affairs at all. This was the prevailing attitude in, say, the 1920s, and into much of the 1930s. Imperialism is the view that we should aggressively use our national might, and especially our military power, to advance our own interests across the globe. Our literal imperialism around the turn of the 20th century was the clearest embodiment of this view, and I therefore use the word "imperialism" as a neat shorthand, but in our own era I think the neoconservatives exemplify this overall attitude. Finally, internationalism is the view that we should take an active, perhaps even a leading, role in foreign affairs, but that we should do so in cooperation with other countries where possible, should emphasize diplomacy, and should in general act for the general good of the world rather than for selfishly pro-American reasons. Woodrow Wilson (and his League of Nations) and Harry Truman (who brought America into the U.N.) are exemplars of internationalism.

And it really is a three-way system. You can't construct any one of these worldviews out of some mixture of the other two; they're qualitatively different orientations toward the world. And they map onto the ordinary political spectrum in some interesting ways. Internationalism is a distinctively liberal attitude, and imperialism a conservative one, but while you can have isolationism of either a liberal or a conservative stripe, it's not especially a "centrist" approach. Indeed, during much of the 20th century it was the very most conservative Republicans who were isolationists. Broadly speaking I think that conservative foreign policy thought runs along the edge of the triangle from imperialism to isolationism (see this excellent Jonathan Chait piece identifying Ted Cruz with the modern isolationists, who see air power as a way to dominate the world without engaging in it, and Marco Rubio with the neo-imperialist neocons)*, while liberal foreign policy runs along the edge from internationalism to isolationism. Bernie Sanders, for example, is somewhere in the middle of that line: he's emphatically not an imperialist, and is in conventional terms incredibly "dovish," but is somewhat skeptical about American involvement abroad, whether diplomatic or militaristic.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is I think on that other edge, the line running from imperialism to internationalism. And I think she's pretty clearly most of the way toward internationalism, maybe almost all the way there. But she's definitely not an isolationist. She sees America as having tremendous capacity to do good in the world, by various means, and as President she will doubtless try to do a lot of good in the world using those various means. Maybe that will get her into trouble sometimes; I certainly think that Obama's skepticism of America's ability to change things for the better has been a healthy one. But it's a fundamentally different impulse from the truly "hawkish" ones of the imperialists. She is interested in using military power, but not for conquest. Maybe from a left-isolationist standpoint that doesn't matter. Maybe for an internationalist skeptical about American power, in more of the Obama tradition, it's a well-meaning but ultimately mistaken and potentially even disastrous approach. This piece isn't entirely a defense of Hillary Clinton.

Rather, it is simply an argument that you cannot understand Hillary Clinton if you try to see foreign policy through a one-dimensional, bipolar lens, with "hawks" on one side and "doves" on the other. There are three different foreign policy camps, and unless you understand that, you can't understand how the different candidates relate to one another.

*And what, you may ask, about Donald Trump? I... don't know, exactly. I think he's a sort of imperialist? But a very different one than the neocons. Basically, as many people have noted, it seems like his "ambition is to sit at the head of a vast American tribute empire," not surprising, perhaps, given that his own business is basically a tribute empire built around the name Trump. I guess that's imperialist? Or some sort of weirdo hybrid between imperialism and isolationism? Maybe it's more isolationist? We shouldn't get involved unless they pay us? Transactional isolationism? I don't know. Certainly it's not within the four corners of any standard-issue map of foreign policy approaches.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Yes, the Democratic Party Has a Real Ideology: Equality

It's become common, among intelligent, political-science-literate types, to say that the Democratic and Republican Parties are organized in qualitatively different ways. The Republican Party is highly ideological, the thinking goes: it's defined by a monolithic commitment to conservative principles. The Democrats, on the other hand, are commonly described as a coalition, maybe even a loose one, of different interest groups. Paul Krugman's latest blog post is largely in this same tradition, with one major variation; it repeats the "coalition of interest groups" description of the Democrats verbatim, but Krugman describes the Republicans as "an engine designed to harness white resentment on behalf of higher incomes for the donor class"--and, as he notes, "the base never cared about the ideology." It's not very hard to diagnose this particular fault-line in the party right now, since Trump basically represents a rebellion on behalf of the white-resentment-y voters against the donor class-favoring party elites.

But I've always thought that this description of the two parties is wrong. Certainly I think it's wrong as to the Democrats, and it might even be totally backwards. Certainly the common wisdom accurately captures the way the parties seem to behave in practice. But if you look deeper, I'm not sure it's so true. The Democrats do have an ideology. You could call it liberalism if you wanted, but egalitarianism is probably a better name. Liberal egalitarianism is better still, if not so pithy. I like that formulation, though, because I'm using the word "liberal" in its technical or political-theory sense, meaning generally a commitment to expansive individual freedom. I also demote liberalism, in this sense, to the position of modifier, with egalitarianism remaining the noun.

And I like that, because I do think that egalitarianism is the central organizing concept of the Democratic Party.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Who Says Resurrection Is All That?

Last night I happened to see an article posted on Facebook titled, "The Challenge of Easter." It's a very thoughtful and well-articulated statement of the importance of Easter, and the event it celebrates--the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion and death--for the Christian world-view. There's one passage in particular that I thought was interesting:
If you don’t believe in the Resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring Jesus the man, appreciating his example and even putting into practice some of his teachings. At the same time, you can set aside those teachings that you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable—say, forgiving your enemies, praying for your persecutors, living simply or helping the poor. You can set them aside because he’s just another teacher. A great one, to be sure, but just one of many.
If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, however, everything changes. In that case, you cannot set aside any of his teachings. Because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority needs to be listened to. What that person says demands a response.

In short, the Resurrection makes a claim on you.
Uhhh... why? I don't entirely get the logic here, the one that says "resurrection → authority." And I'm not even talking here about my own personal quibble with the "god → authority" logic, although I do also have a problem with that. No, I'm talking about the "resurrection → god" step in the reasoning. Because there's plenty of non-god creatures that can rise from the dead. Vampires, for instance, and zombies. Or wights, though they're less popular these days. Oh, and Time Lords, of course. (Jesus was clearly a Time Lord.) The simple fact of his resurrection doesn't really narrow down which of these he was. Now, you may say, ah, yes, but vampires, zombies, and Time Lords aren't real. Okay, but... neither is god. It's a level playing field!

Or, at least, we haven't yet established that god exists: the author uses his resurrection as evidence for his authority. Obviously if you already believe he's god, then he's god, but if you don't already believe that he's god, I don't see how his supposed resurrection really gets you any further toward that destination. I might be very impressed by someone who can rise from the dead (presuming, of course, that he's not in the zombie/vampire/etc. scary-undead category of people who rise from the dead), but why on earth should I conclude that he's my sovereign?

Friday, March 25, 2016

You Don't Have the Votes

"This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative," declares David Brooks in the opening of his column today. That sounds strange, given the general despair gripping the Republican Party, and in particular the "it would be nice if our party weren't so goddamn crazy" faction of the Republican Party, but his closing paragraph explains what he means:
We’re going to have two parties in this country. One will be a Democratic Party that is moving left. The other will be a Republican Party. Nobody knows what it will be, but it’s exciting to be present at the re-creation.
On the one hand, that sounds about right. I've long thought something along these lines: that the Republican Party as we know it has a clear expiration-date, that eventually it would have to reshape itself, but that I couldn't for the life of me imagine what it would come out the other side looking like. Brooks suggests that Trump represents the destruction of the old party, the "model crisis" in which the old Republican ideas, having grown unworkable over the past few decades, come crashing to the ground. This sets up an opening for a new Republican paradigm, a new model for the party.

But here's the thing: that new Republican Party doesn't have the votes. Not yet, and probably not for a long time. The big problem in American politics right now is that there's a section of the country, no longer large enough to win a general election, as it was back in the 1980s, but still big enough to dominate one party's primaries, which is bitterly committed to a mixture of what we might charitably call white nationalism and conservative Christian traditionalism. Those voters want nothing to do with the new Republican Party Brooks wants. They're angry about America's increasing pluralism, and about the fact that white Christians no longer get to just run everything without serious opposition. Hell, it's worse than that, for them, as this piece about Trump-as-Jefferson-Davis observes: like the South after the Election of 1860, these voters are looking at a bleak future of being consistently outvoted by those who would tear down the social institutions and traditions they hold most dear.

Brooks wants the new Republican Party to be "compassionate," but these voters have, it appears, no compassion for anyone outside their own little group, and precious little of it even within the group.

Brooks wants the new Republican Party to have an "expansive open" nationalism, but these voters are practically defined by the "closed, ethnic nationalism" Brooks decries.

Brooks wants the new Republican Party to be "honest," but these voters feel so threatened by reality that they demand unwavering loyalty from their politicians to ideas they'd have to be either fools or knaves to espouse.

Brooks wants the new Republican Party to focus less on economic theory and more on "sociology," but... well, okay, let's be honest. These voters don't give a damn about homo economicus and the conservative economic theories which have used him as their justification. As for sociology, though, I fear these voters only have interest in "binding a fragmenting society, reweaving family and social connections" in one way, and not one that involves "relating across the diversity of a globalized world."

The basic point is that the people voting for Trump like Trump. They like what Trump stands for, and it's everything Brooks is against. What's more, even those Republicans who aren't voting for Trump are mostly voting for Ted Cruz. Let's run Cruz through the Brooks checklist. Compassionate? Hah. He's one of the least compassionate politicians you'll ever see. Expansive and open in his nationalism? Try "let's see if sand can glow in the dark" and "let's secure Muslim neighborhoods." (Actually, file those under the compassion thing as well.) Honest? Well, I guess Cruz is slightly more honest than Trump, but he's hardly honest. And as for sociology, Cruz is as fanatic about Reagan-style conservative economic theory as anyone on the Republican debate stages. Probably more. So between Trump and Cruz, we're looking at close to 80% of the Republican Party's voters who really don't want the kind of party Brooks wants.

So while I'd sure like to think the Republican Party might rise from its Trump-induced ashes in a form similar to what Brooks describes. But I just don't see where it's going to get the votes. Because the thing is, the people who have been deciding to vote for the Republican Party these last few decades are a lot more like Donald Trump than David Brooks. Perhaps that's because what David Brooks is describing is a lot more like Barack Obama's Democratic Party than it is like the Republicans.

In fact, thinking about it a bit, it sort of seems to me like American politics, particularly in the coming years, is divided in something like three parts. The first divide is between people who think that, e.g., global warming and health care and poverty and race discrimination are the problems with the world (broadly liberal priorities) and those who think that, e.g., godlessness and sexual perversion and invading hordes of Muslim terrorists and racial entitlements are the problems with the world (broadly conservative priorities). The latter form the Trump/Cruz part of the electorate. It's the vast majority of Republicans, but probably not much more than a third of the electorate. Then within the first group there's a division between those with broadly conservative (in a traditional, 1950s sense of the word) ideas about how to solve these problems and those with more aggressively liberal, verging on socialist ideas about how to solve them. That last is the people supporting Bernie, plus those who would support him except for fear that he'd lose the general. So then in the middle, the people who have broadly liberal sensibilities about what the problems are but broadly conservative sensibilities about how to fix them, are people like David Brooks. And Barack Obama, at least as he's manifested as President. (It's tough to know how much more radical he might have been in his approach with fewer political constraints.) Of course, it's really more of a spectrum between Brooks at one end and Bernie on the other, with Obama and Clinton somewhere in the middle.

In a lot of ways, this three-way divide looks a lot like the Socialist/Liberal/Conservative party systems we see in many countries. And it would be really, really nice if we could end up kicking the Trump/Cruz-style conservative faction out altogether, and having something like a socialist party and a liberal party. But those reactionary conservatives aren't going away, not all at once anyway. It'll be many decades yet before we can have a party that includes the Trump/Cruz voters but isn't dominated by them. And in the meanwhile, given that people like Brooks are starting to wake up to the fact that the reactionaries really aren't the kind of people they want to be making common cause with, it's awfully tough to see how we're gonna get two parties out of this electorate in the near future.

David Brooks may think it's a great time to be a conservative, but he's looking at a generation of alliance with either the party of Trump or the party of Obama, Clinton, and *gasp* Sanders.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Shut Up, Bernie

So, last week Bernie Sanders said some things. Things like this:
But the bottom line is that when only half of the American people have participated in the political process, when some of the larger states in this country, people in those states have not yet been able to voice their opinion on who should be the Democratic nominee, I think it's absurd for anybody to suggest that those people not have a right to cast a vote. 
And like this:
We think if we come into the convention in July in Philadelphia, having won a whole lot of delegates, having a whole lot of momentum behind us, and most importantly perhaps being the candidate who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump, we think that some of these super delegates who have now supported Hillary Clinton can come over to us. Rachel, in almost every poll, not every poll, but almost every national matchup poll between Sanders and Trump, Clinton and Trump, we do better than Hillary Clinton and sometimes by large numbers. We get a lot more of the independent vote than she gets. And, frankly and very honestly, I think I am a stronger candidate to defeat Trump than Secretary Clinton is and I think many secretary -- many of the super delegates understand that.
 Okay, so, a few thoughts.