Tuesday, October 27, 2009

MLB's Pursuit of Mr. November

With the World Series commencing tomorrow night, Major League Baseball faces for the first time the strong possibility that at least half of the championship games for this summer sport will be played in November. This has come about because of the combination of 1) the additional round of playoffs that was instituted with realignment a few years ago; 2) the calendar falling in such a way that the season began several days into April; and 3) the numerous days off during the playoff rounds necessary to accommodate MLB's desire to play as many games on television on a single network during prime time as possible.

Playing baseball World Series games at night this close to the winter solstice is a tragedy. Playing night games even in early October can be a dicey situation in some markets, and it is almost certain that games played after dark in early November will feature less than optimal conditions for championship play.

The World Series should be completed no later than mid October. To shave 2 weeks off of its season, baseball could 1)reduce its season by 8 games to 154 (the number of games played over the course of much of the history of the sport; and 2) eliminating the All Star break, which, in spite of the PR efforts, no one really believes counts or cares about anyway.

While some would suggest that this will cost baseball money, the loss in gate receipts will largely be offset by reducing current disadvantages. By pushing the World Series back into November, baseball is competing against the middle of the schedule of college and professional football and against the beginning of hockey and basketball seasons. In addition, baseball might want to consider this with regard to basketball and hockey:

Those pro sports extend their championship games into June, by which time most fans are diverting their attention elsewhere. When teams are playing for the Stanley Cup in June, no one really cares anymore outside of Canada and the two U.S. cities playing for the championship. Casual fans elsewhere are no longer interested.

Baseball is similarly marginalizing itself. The games to begin tomorrow should have already been played.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Setback for Chasers of Ambulances in Texas

It appears that the Texas Transportation Commission will finally approve the removal of phone numbers from crash reports.

Deadening and Enlivening Spirituality

A couple of weeks ago, I got in my rental car at the airport and turned the radio on. Recognizing the voice of the Rev. Charles Stanley, who is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, I reached to change the station. However, I changed my mind and decided to listen for a while. He was preaching from a passage in the Gospels in which Jesus told Peter that Satan desired to sift him as wheat.

It has been a long time since I have listened to anyone espousing the view of spirituality that Pastor Stanley affirms, and I was frankly surprised at how strongly I reacted against it.

Someone has properly said that all of Christian doctrine is grace, and all of Christian conduct is gratitude. That is to say that God has acted decisively on behalf of those who are His, and we respond with gratefulness. Unfortunately, the message I heard on the radio that night was quite different. According to the radio preacher, God has acted to give us opportunities. Accessing those opportunities will make us more effective and able to have an impact. Failure to access those opportunities will result in us failing to reach our potential.

This type of spirituality is ultimately stifling, as it views ourselves as being in charge of that which is actually the province of the Lord. While Mr. Stanley would reject the notion that he is legalistic because he teaches salvation by faith, his version of spirituality is ultimately a legalistic one of telling congregants to do more and try harder so that they can be what they are intended to be. Such law based spirituality frequently leads to either disillusionment and burn-out or to a suffocating self-righteousness.

I, myself, was raised in a legalism more stifling than that, and I am grateful to have escaped it. The Bible tells us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. It then tells us, by faith, to be reconciled to God. He has done the work. I believe, and then spend the remainder of this life learning to live gratefully.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Contradicting One's Self in the Space of Two Sentences Quote of the Day

"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."

Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, explaining his refusal to marry an interacial couple, as quoted in an AP article. One hopes that Mr. Bardwell, who supports his claim that he is not a racist by saying that he lets "black friends...use my bathroom," will lose his position immediately. In fact, if this abuse of his position of public trust is not a crime that would result in jail time, it should be.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The PWC Report on Health Care Reform Is Accurate

The report, commissioned by America's Health Insurance Plans and released the day before the Senate Finance Committee voted out the Baucus bill, provides a devastating analysis of the impact of the legislation on health insurance costs. As a result, proponents of the bill have lashed out the report, claiming that it is biased based on who paid for it.

In fact, the report may underestimate the cost impact. Don't believe the ideologues on left or right. Look to people who understand the health care business.

Bob Laszewski and Joe Paduda are both health care professionals. They are both advocates of major health care reform legislation -- Mr. Paduda openly campaigned for Barack Obama; I don't know who Mr. Laszewski voted for. Read their analyses here and here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Spoof Headline of the Day

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Little Professional Accountability for Texas Doctors

The Dallas Morning News has an investigative report detailing the disturbing laxity of the Texas State Board of Medicine in disciplining doctors. A doctor who gave his drug addicted patient a gun and drugs lost his license. However, others who molested children who were patients or who endangered patient safety did not.

The lack of oversight of these licensed professionals is disturbing.

Negative Politics not a Problem?

An analysis in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram asks whether what is thought to be an increasingly virulent talk radio environment runs the risk of inciting people to violence. While the article focuses on talk radio, others express similar concerns about bloggers.

Jon Meacham's recent biography of Andrew Jackson provides a helpful reminder that over-the-top negativity in politics is nothing new. In the election of 1828, General Jackson's opponents alleged (accurately, it seems) that his 30 year marriage to Rachel involved bigamy, and even more hostile opponents alleged that his mother, who had been dead for 40 years, was a "whore." Jackson in justified bitterness believed that the attacks were responsible for the death of his wife. Following the election, internecine conflicts related to the character of the wife of his Secretary of War ultimately had a significant impact on the future of presidential politics.

None of this is to justify such nastiness, but the election of 1828 (and many others that could be cited) provides a helpful reminder that things may not be any worse than they have always been. While The Oracle has sometimes complained that the mindless negativity of modern campaigns probably keeps many highly qualified candidates from running, that has been true throughout American history, at least since the founding generation. Indeed, outside of that generation, with the exception of those who had been successful as military leaders, there really have not been that many Americans of outstanding achievement in their fields who have run for the presidency.

Modern technology means that many people get a wider hearing than they otherwise would, and many of those really are not worth listening to. However, free speech is necessarily messy speech -- no First Amendment is required for speech that no one considers disagreeable. Fears as to the result of such speech are likely greatly exaggerated.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bikes and Helmets

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand: a Review

While reading Atlas Shrugged, I could not help but think of the stark contrast between this novel and the writing of my favorite 20th century author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Although Mr. Tolkien's philosophical convictions are not so much on the surface as Ms. Rand's, both of these authors manifest ideologies representing forms of conservatism -- Ms. Rand is described as a libertarian, to be more precise. Nonetheless, any similarities end there. Mr. Tolkien's novels, though written for a different world ("middle earth"), celebrate nature and tradition; Ms. Rand despises tradition and worships the world of industrialization. Only a theist could have written Lord of the Rings; Ms. Rand promotes atheism. Mr. Tolkien finds corruptibility in the hearts of all of his creatures; Ms. Rand finds evil in societal structures corrupting pure hearts.

Not surprisingly, this reviewer prefers the vision of the creator of hobbits, though he wanted to like this novel, as well. In the end, he could not.

Because of the nature of the novel, any review of Atlas Shrugged must consider it as both a work of art and one of philosophy, and the novel falters on both counts. Any art worth paying attention to will have a demonstrable world view, but when art attempts to serve ideological ends, it nearly always suffers from the effort. Atlas Shrugged is no exception.

"Who is John Galt?" the novel begins, and it takes nearly 700 pages before we begin to find out. The novel takes place in a dystopian culture in the United States circa 1950. As the politics of the nation move increasingly toward socialism, the wider culture increasingly reflects mediocrity while deploring the "greedy" and those who pursue excellence in any profession. A handful of industrialists stand against that collectivizing trend, with the protagonist of the book being Dagny Taggart, who by virtue of birth and ability is the chief operating officer of a transcontinental railroad. As her brother possesses the same birthright, but lacks any discernable ability, she, in fact, runs the railroad in a losing battle against the political and cultural forces shaping the world.

Her battle is made harder by the fact that the other great industrialists of the age are gradually disappearing, and the reader eventually learns that they are being convinced by the aforementioned John Galt to go on strike. The idea is to bring the motor of the world to a standstill, so that those who know how to run things will be free to do so without approbation. That is actually an intriguing idea to this reviewer, who has frequently noted the abuse heaped on entrepreneurs, who make things people want and create jobs in so doing, and wondered if they ever think of cashing out and going home. In Atlas Shrugged, they disappear and wait for the world to crash.

As said before, art that is subservient to ideology suffers thereby, and Atlas Shrugged suffers in both plot and characterization. Ms. Taggart, though limited in some ways, manages to be interesting -- since starting to read the book, this reviewer has talked to several women who read it when they were younger and were inspired by her powerful character -- but most of the other characters seem less like humans than cardboard cutouts of Ms. Rand's ideological vision. Her heroic industrialists are all full of competence, entrepreneurial energy, philosophical brilliance, and are great looking. The bad guys are the opposite of all of those attributes. The card board nature of the characters is ironic, since the author frequently describes the heroes of her novel as being the only ones who are "alive" and "real." The plot also becomes contorted and falls completely apart in the latter half.

The good guys in Ms. Rand's rendering are those who live entirely for self -- who define their own values and then live in a manner consistent with them. Any form of self-sacrifice is evil, and greed is defined as good. In that regard, Ms. Rand correctly opposes those who consider the profit motive as a form of evil, but one might suggest that she goes too far in insisting that it is a positive good. In fact, one would hardly be anti-capitalist in suggesting that the profit motive is neither good nor evil, but can be either depending on what other values and actions are invested in its pursuit.

The good guys are also those who reject any notion of human depravity, including that taught in the Christian doctrine of original sin. Ms. Rand, who paints all of her opponents with a broad brush [her enemies are variously dismissed as mystics (the religious), looters (the tax collectors), or moochers (the unachieving seeking the goods of the achievers)], considers the doctrine of original sin to be a great enemy of freedom. Ms. Rand, who was born in Russia, would likely not appreciate the irony that arguably the most significant voice of freedom in the 20th century in her homeland, A. Solzhenitsyn, was the man who wrote, "The line that divides good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being...." Contra Rand, belief in human sinfulness need not be the enemy of freedom. Frequently, it is not.

Ms. Rand claims to be celebrating reality, but having rejected tradition, nature, nature's God, and human depravity, she then can only find her reality in utopia -- in a place alternately referred to as Atlantis or Galt's Gulch. In that hidden locale, the most brilliant people of the age live in perfect professional and personal harmony. Even the unspoken selection of a new lover at the expense of an expectant previous one is managed with stoic reserve and acceptance.

Though the novel is ideologically overbearing, perhaps Ms. Rand feared that the point wasn't clear enough, so she has John Galt deliver an absurd 70 page (in my edition) radio broadcast expounding the philosophy. The leaders of the country cower at the profundity that they cannot accept.

Many conservatives, distressed at the collectivism that reigned at the end of the Bush administration and the first year of President Obama, have taken a look at the philosophical pretensions of Ms. Rand. Looking for conservative principles is not a bad idea, but this reviewer would suggest finding them in a world inhabited by hobbits and elves, not in the unreal world of Ayn Rand.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Olympic Failure

There has already been more than enough gloating by conservative and Republican pundits over the failure of the President and First Lady to secure the selection of Chicago as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and I have no interest in adding to it. However, the incident is useful in highlighting a weakness of the current administration.

The last minute effort by the President frankly had the feel of an amateurish stunt. Those who know anything about the process of selecting sites for major events understand this: a big name can help open doors on the front end, but the selection will ultimately be based on the minutiae of the bid itself -- financial issues, facilities, hotel accessibility, infrastructure needs, etc., as well as less tangible issues that might make a difference. Unless Chicago was already the front runner, speech making about dreams of fathers for their daughters was not going to make any difference, and the President frankly didn't belong there unless it was for the purpose of sealing a deal that was already essentially complete. Obviously, that was not the case. If the Obama's looked amateurish, they were surpassed on that front by a mindless media that cooed that committee members were struggling to maintain the appearance of objectivity prior to coronating the President and Chicago with their keys to the kingdom, or at least the upcoming summer games.

Unfortunately, this flaw is pervasive with the President. Unlike his predecessor, who failed to get out sufficiently to communicate his message, the current President seems determined to attach his supposed rock star status to everything. This overexposure, which gives him the resemblance of a candidate more than an officeholder, leaves the impression of a visionary executive without operational support. The President finds himself promising more than he can deliver, and his administration has the appearance of an empty shell.

During the actual campaign, some mention was made that the President, coming from the Senate, had no executive experience, and that lack of experience may indeed be his undoing. In any executive office, visionary leadership must be accompanied by operational competence, and in the Obama administration, such confidence is either lacking or unacknowledged. Of course, many Republicans will gloat over this gap in competence, and it is easy to be glad that disagreeable policies are floundering.

Nonetheless, the nation is in the midst of the greatest combination of domestic and international concerns in several decades. It would be encouraging to get a sense that those running the show are at least competent to do so.