Baseball Crank
"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
May 23, 2013
POLITICS: Peggy Noonan, Nate Silver & Punditry

Nate Silver kicked up a minor fuss last Friday with yet another NY Times column deriding the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan. There's less than meets the eye to the specifics of this particular dustup, but what's interesting is Silver's ongoing critique of Noonan and what it says about both of them. For today, I'll focus here mainly on Noonan.

Assume A Can Opener

Noonan's Thursday column on the IRS scandal, relying in part on an earlier column by Kimberley Strassel, used anecdotal examples (those cited by Strassel are fairly hair-raising, as are those in this National Review piece by Jillian Kay Melchior) to suggest that the IRS' admitted practice of targeting Tea Party and other conservative non-profits for audits was symptomatic of a larger dynamic in the use of the IRS (and possibly other regulatory agencies) to target President Obama's identified enemies. Dramatic anecdotes are long a staple of illustrating and humanizing the impact of policy stories and scandals - they're a big part of how political communications work, and sometimes you need to get the smoke in your nostrils to decide where to look for the fire.

Silver's response, complete with a superfluous chart, is to note that there's a large enough number of people audited every year that by chance alone, "it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Mitt Romney voters were selected for an audit in 2012 .... [and] it’s also likely that hundreds of thousands of Mr. Obama’s supporters were audited." Which might be a useful caution against drawing conclusions from small sample sizes, if a few anecdotes was all we had. But this requires that we ignore the facts that (among other things) (1) the IRS has admitted to targeting conservative non-profits; (2) IRS management and senior employees are heavily Democratic and very political, giving some 75% of their campaign donations to Democrats; and (3) the NTEU, the union representing IRS employees, is even more heavily Democratic (94% of donations) and militantly anti-Tea Party. And indeed, some of the examples cited by Strassel or others - when considered in that light, along with the fact that some of these folks were targeted by multiple agencies at once - suggest a broader problem that bears further detailed investigation. Silver concedes of his statistical analysis that "this calculation assumes that individuals’ risk of being audited is independent of their political views," which of course is the very thing in dispute; it's like the old joke about an economist stranded on a desert island with a stack of canned goods whose solution begins, "assume a can opener." All things being equal, all things are equal.

Peggy Noonan's Feelings

Sensing the weakness of his argument on this occasion, Silver goes back to surer ground for him:

[T]he principle is important: a handful of anecdotal data points are not worth very much in a country of more than 300 million people. Ms. Noonan, and many other commentators, made a similar mistake last year in their analysis of the presidential election, when they cited evidence like the number of Mitt Romney yard signs in certain neighborhoods as an indication that he was likely to win, while dismissing polls that collectively surveyed hundreds of thousands of voters in swing states and largely showed Mr. Obama ahead.

Now, I would agree that if you're reading Peggy Noonan columns instead of polls in the closing weeks of an intensively-polled national election campaign to figure out who's going to win, you've about lost your mind. My own analyses of the odds at that juncture were based almost entirely on quantifiable data. And I've had my own issues with Noonan in the past - we identified Noonan by name in a 2008 RedState editorial denouncing conservative and Republican commentators who failed to take seriously enough the threat of Obama. More broadly, the commentariat is infested with too many veteran pundits who have been writing on auto-pilot for years and lack subject-matter expertise, real-world experience or the work ethic to dive into the weeds of an issue. But all that said, I think Silver's drumbeat of criticism aimed at Noonan and her type of punditry misses the value such pundits can bring to the table.

Noonan's 1990 book What I Saw At The Revolution was a fantastic read, probably the best book written on the Reagan presidency until Steven Hayward's history, but even then, Noonan's was a book about words, feelings, and personalities - about political communication and how it works and reaches voters. She's never been an interesting writer on policy, facts or data - she writes about hopes and fears and how candidates speak to them. She writes from her heart and her gut, not her brain, with empathy rather than logic. Like her less coherent left-wing counterpart and contemporary, Maureen Dowd, Noonan's style is an exaggeratedly feminine approach to punditry (not all female politics writers are like this, by any means - Strassel's not, for example).

The reason why Noonan's writing in the past has been interesting, other than simply her talent as a stylist, is that she empathizes with the hopes and fears of a certain brand of voter sharing one or more of her own characteristics - white, female, adult, Catholic but not too Catholic, suburban and/or middle-class in background, not Southern (Noonan's from New Jersey and lives in Manhattan). And, as befits a successful presidential speechwriter, she's often had useful insights into why such voters act the way they do. Polls and other hard data can predict events in the very near future, but all the hard data in the world tracking the behavior of voters is no substitute for understanding why they come to flock behind some candidates, parties, and movements - and those are often the biggest questions confronting political parties and candidates over the long haul or even over the length of a single campaign.

The kind of voter Noonan empathizes with has long been the core swing voter in American politics, the voter who went for FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes. Obama still did fairly well with them in 2008 - but not in 2012, as I have illustrated previously with this chart showing the share of the two-party vote among different groups won by the winning candidate in elections between 1972 and 2012:

Those are the voters who were the center, the core of the old Nixon and Reagan coalitions, and for all his failings (including, conspicuously, getting such voters to turn out in sufficient numbers), Mitt Romney succeeded in winning them over, in keeping together the old coalition. When Noonan wrote that Romney was doing the things he needed to do to win the voters who would decide the election, she wasn't wrong about her intuition: he did win those voters. Obama lost swing-voter group after swing-voter group, majorities of majorities - he lost independents, white women, white Catholics, suburbanites, voters age 30 and up, etc. He lost the center, but he ran up the score so much at the margins that the old center was no longer the center of the 2012 electorate. The 50-yard line had moved.

Not every bad idea was originally a bad idea, and not everyone who is wrong today was always wrong. Political communication matters - and pundits who understand it are still useful. The challenge for a pundit in Noonan's position is staving off obsolescence as the center of the electorate shifts (including understanding where and why it will shift in the future). It is entirely possible, for example, that none of the things Noonan thinks of as factors that would lead to a loss of voter confidence in Obama and his Administration - incompetence, pettiness, abuse of power - are things that matter to the people who make up his political base. But writing off the entire project of empathizing with the psychology of voters runs the risk of failing to understand why all present trends in the data will not continue forever.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 4:30 PM | Politics 2013 | Comments (4)
May 22, 2013
WAR/HISTORY: A Timeline of Islamic Expansion In The Dark Ages

Let me put down here some facts that are worth returning to from time to time, as arguments over the history of Islam and Islamism are back in the news with today's beheading in London. In debates over the history of tension between Muslims and Christians, the Crusades are often cited, out of their historical context, as the original cause of such clashes, as if both sides were peaceably minding their own business before imperialist Westerners decided to go launch a religious war in Muslim lands.

This is not what actually happened, and indeed it is ahistorical to treat the fragmented feudal states of the West in the Eleventh Century as capable of any such thing as imperialism or colonialism (although, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, even in the centuries after the fall of Rome, Western civilization retained a superior logistical ability to project force overseas due to the scientific, economic and military legacies of ancient Greece and Rome). Moreover, when Islam first arose, much of what we think of today as Islamic 'territory' in Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa was Christian until conquered by the heirs of Muhammad, such that speaking of one side's incursions into the other's territory requires you to ignore how that territory was seized in the first place. That entire region had been part of the Roman and later Byzantine empires, and was culturally part of the West until it was conquered by Muslim arms - Rome is closer geographically to Tripoli than to London, Madrid is closer to Casablanca than to Berlin, Athens is closer to Damascus than to Paris.

All that said, it's worth remembering that the Crusades arose in the late Eleventh Century only after four centuries of relentless Islamic efforts to conquer Europe, and the Christians of the Crusading era cannot be evaluated without that crucial context.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:00 PM | History • | War 2007-14 | Comments (2)
May 16, 2013
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden

Checking off the top act remaining on my current "gotta see live" list, I went with my wife to see The Killers in concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. While there were a few bumps in the road, on the whole the show was a reminder of why they are possibly the best rock band still in their prime today.

The Setting

I've previously described The Killers as "[t]he best young (under-40) rock band, period" - the main competition right now being Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - and their 2006 album Sam's Town is arguably the best album of the last 15 years, so I was eager to get to see them live while they're still at the top of their game, ten years into their career and touring in support of their fourth studio album. Lead singer Brandon Flowers is 31, and the rest of the band is in their mid-30s; Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci released solo projects before their latest album came out, Flowers with a solo album (Flamingo) and Vannucci with his own band, Big Talk (Big Talk). The concert had originally been scheduled for a Friday night in December, but was cancelled when Flowers came down with laryngitis, so our wait for this show had been a long one.

MSG is generally regarded as a great arena to see a show - it's not as scenic as Jones Beach, as perfect acoustically as Radio City or as impressive as a stadium show, and it's very loud, but for its size it's a good venue. And, of course, given the proximity to Penn Station it's about the easiest concert venue there is to access by mass transit.

I would estimate that the bulk of the crowd was in the mid-20s to early 30s range, which would be people who were in high school or college when the band hit it big almost a decade ago; there were a fair number of people around my age (41) or a little older, but few of the fifty/sixtysomethings you'd see at, say, a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were clearly some college kids but I did not see a whole lot of teenagers, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the band's current album, Battle Born - their only studio album since 2008 - hasn't sold especially well in the U.S. compared to their prior albums or received a ton of radio attention. Every single person I saw at the show was white, a fact that speaks to rock's demographic problem going forward. There was a fair amount of singing along, and the first few rows of general admission in front of the stage were a fist-pumping lot, but otherwise it was your basic crowd of adults on a Tuesday night. A number of people near us bailed out during the last song to head downstairs, presumably to catch trains at Penn Station. On the other hand, this was the first show I've been to in a while where there was really a lot of noticeable pot smoke around us, and on the way out two guys near us started jawing and came to blows.

The opening act - originally planned to be Tegan and Sara when the show was first scheduled - ended up being a New York-based band called The Virgins, and their opening set must have been short; the official start time was 8, my wife and I arrived at 8:30 from an event at my son's high school and they'd finished their set already. The Killers went on at 9:10, and played until a little after 11pm.

The Show

The show opened with an unusual twist compared to most of the concerts I've seen: The Killers just walked onstage without fanfare with the house lights still on and launched right into an energetic rendition of 'Mr. Brightside', their biggest radio hit and still arguably their best-known song. Playing with the house lights on made the Garden feel less like The World's Most Famous Arena and more like an oversized high school gym, all the better to foster a little less distance between the band and the fans.

The second song was 'Spaceman', and that was one of two songs on the night - the other being 'Somebody Told Me', much later in the set - that had real audio problems, as there was a lot of rumbling feedback that made it difficult to hear Flowers' vocals. 'Spaceman' has a lot of electronic background production on the album, and I suspect perhaps there was a backing track playing along with the band on those two songs that didn't work all that well. But the sound problems wouldn't be an issue for the rest of the show, as vocals and instruments were both crisply audible.

The set also seemed a bit minimalist at first for a band that's always put a lot of thought into its music videos and other visuals, aside from the band's lightning-bolt logo front and center; the one video screen was mounted behind the stage and a bit hard to see from further up. But the laser light show worked well for 'Shadowplay' and the fireworks and confetti as the show reached its conclusion were good visual touches.

Flowers talks less between songs than most frontmen; after an early apology for cancelling the original concert date, it was pretty late in the show before there was a break between songs at all, although he did introduce the extremely Springsteenish 'Dustland Fairytale' with a little talk about growing up in Vegas and 'When You Were Young' by talking about being nervous recording a followup to Hot Fuss. There were two other musicians besides the 4-man band onstage, and he completely failed to mention them when introducing the band midway through the show, and ended up re-introducing everybody during the last song.

Flowers' quavery, emotional voice isn't really the type that you'd expect to hold up well in concert, but after a bit of a rushed start over the first two songs, he was solid and about 95% of how he sounds in the studio. He's exceptionally skinny - the man has the lower body of a 15 year old - and his stage presence is that of a teenager performing alone in his room with the stereo cranked to 11; rather than try to control his nervous energy, he just channels it into his performance, hopping on and off the risers at the end of the stage and exhorting everybody to clap and sing along with him. He demanded that the fans forget it's Tuesday and put on their dancing shoes for 'From Here On Out', a rockabilly number from the latest album that is fun but not really something you could dance to.

Musically, there were not a lot of departures in how the band played their songs, unlike a band like Grace Potter & the Nocturnals that leaves a lot of room in the setlist for extended jams; seeing how sharply executed their songs were and how closely they hewed to the studio versions was a reminder of quite how tightly constructed The Killlers' songs really are. They just seem to have put too much thought into every note of the melodies already to mess with them. Vannucci's drums are the real driving force behind most of their songs, but Dave Keuning's guitar work is just remarkably precise. (Bassist Mark Stoermer has the low-key role, as bassists usually do).

Overall, the 20-song setlist was pretty evenly divided and reflected the astonishing depth of quality music for a band with 4 studio albums: 5 songs from their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, 4 from Sam's Town, 3 from 2008's Day & Age, and 5 from Battle Born, plus their cover of Joy Division's 'Shadowplay' from the 2007 Sawdust compilation and 2 covers. They couldn't hit every single one of their good songs ('Bones', for example, really requires a horn section), but they got close; my only real gripe with the setlist was the omission of the best song on Battle Born, the driving uptempo anthem rocker 'The Rising Tide,' while playing the less inspiring title track as a show-closer and the somewhat disappointing 'The Way It Was' as the third song of the show.

The more fun of the covers, which the band has been doing this tour, is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure pop hits of the 1980s, 'I Think We're Alone Now', originally by Tommy James and the Shondelles but more famously covered by Tiffany in 1987 - it's a pop song that resonates for my generation (I had just turned 16 when the song hit the airwaves, and it was sung by a 16-year-old singer, and they played it in such heavy rotation on Z100 at the time that you could hear it 3 times in an hourlong school bus ride), but I'm not sure how well-recognized it is by younger rock fans, let alone the Tommy James original (Flowers, with a nod to his own band's pervasive U2 influences, introduced the song by saying, "Tiffany stole this song from Tommy James and the Shondells. Tonight, we're stealing it back.").

The other cover was 'New York, New York,' which Flowers delivered well enough in the traditional tempo and arrangement. Which brings up an odd point about The Killers. Some of my favorite musicians - from Bruce Springsteen to the Irish band The Saw Doctors to pop star Kelly Clarkson - give off a strong sense of geographical rootedness, of being from and of a particular place (respectively the Jersey Shore, Galway and Mayo Counties in the West of Ireland, and Texas). The Killers are from Las Vegas, Nevada, and since Flowers discovered Springsteen before recording Sam's Town (named after a Vegas casino) he's made a point of making a lot of references to the band's home town, from the desert motifs of 'Dustland Fairytale' and 'Don't Shoot Me Santa Claus' to 'Battle Born' (named for the Nevada state motto) to his solo track 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'. In the intro to 'New York, New York' and 'Dustland Fairytale,' Flowers seemed intent on talking up New York (partly, no doubt, in an effort to flatter the local audience) and about how "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" is a lot more inspiring than "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Something in that echoed one of the (fair) criticisms I've seen of Flowers' recent writing: that he may be from Vegas but he's not really of Vegas and doesn't really get the city's gamblers-and-stale-booze culture. He is, after all, a Mormon family man, and his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys, an influence you can hear in Hot Fuss, an album that sounds more English than American and has no references at all to Vegas or Nevada. As earnest as they are, Flowers' efforts to claim his home town always seem a little forced, forced in the same way as singing 'New York, New York' just because you're in New York.

With a touring hiatus and half the band making solo albums before they reuinted for Battle Born, and then the less smashing commercial performance of the album, fans of The Killers can be excused for worrying if their future as a band may be a little uncertain. Battle Born itself might have benefitted if a few of the weaker songs had been replaced by the best songs on Flowers' and Vannucci's solo albums. Even the crowd did not seem all that into the new material beyond the two singles, 'Runaways' and 'Miss Atomic Bomb' (the latter is a ballad, and while it's grown on me, we saw in the ballads on Battle Born why The Killers have rarely recorded ballads). But for now, in concert, they remain at the peak of their game, playing both the old and new material with enthusiasm and skill. It's a very fun show and very much worth seeing if you care about rock & roll.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:30 PM | Pop Culture | Comments (4)
May 13, 2013
POLITICS: PPP on the Brown-Warren Senate Race: A Polling Post-Mortem

Warren v Brown 2012 photo Mass2012map.jpg

Polls are back in the news, with the release of four public polls and an internal Gabriel Gomez campaign poll in the June 25 Massachusetts special Senate election to replace John Kerry. 3 of the 4 public polls show Ed Markey with a distinct but still surmountable lead, an average of 6 points; the fourth shows him up by 17 and looks like an outlier, adding 2.7 points by itself to Markey's lead in the RCP average. The Gomez campaign's internal poll shows Markey by 3; if you use the general rule of thumb that a campaign conducts multiple internal polls and will only release its most favorable internal, that's consistent with this currently being a 5-7 point race. Which is not a bad place for a Republican to be in Massachusetts five weeks before the election - it gives Gomez a puncher's chance in a special election - although you'd clearly still put better than 50/50 odds on Markey.

The closest public poll so far was put out by progressive Democratic pollsters PPP; its first poll of the race has Markey up by 4, 44-40. Let's take a look at how PPP polled the last Senate race in Massachusetts, the 2012 race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which Warren ultimately won 54-46. That race may be less predictive of this one than the 2010 special election between Brown and Martha Coakley (in which PPP was one of the more reliable pollsters), but it's interesting as an exercise in examining how PPP samples the electorate.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 5:00 PM | Politics 2012 • | Politics 2013 • | Poll Analysis | Comments (0)
May 3, 2013
BASEBALL: Wright Zone Judgment

David Wright is back, or rather he's still back. Wright, who batted .311/.394/.534 (OPS+ 141) from 2005-08 (age 22-25), slumped to .284/.364/.463 (OPS+ 124) from 2009-11, the first three years in the new Citi Field in what should have been his prime hitting age, 26-28. But over the 2012-13 seasons so far, he's hitting .307/.396/.497 (OPS+ 146), reclaiming his status as an elite player.

A major factor in both turnarounds has been Wright's strikeout rate. From 2005-08, Wright averaged walks in 11.8% of his plate appearances, strikeouts in 16.6%. From 2009-11, the walk rate slumped slightly to 11.2%, but the K rate ballooned to 22.9%. Strikeouts are not much worse than any other out, but when a player suddenly starts striking out a lot more, that's usually a bad sign. Since the start of 2012, however, Wright is back to a BB/K rate of 12.8% walks, 16.5% strikeouts.

When you break it out by month, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Wright was particularly badly affected by his August 15, 2009 beaning, which caused him to miss the rest of that month; while his K rate was already up in April-May 2009 (14.6% BB, 24.9% K, mostly due to adjusting to an unfriendly new home park - 11.2% BB, 31.2% K in home games those two months, 18.3% BB, 18.3% K in road games), he'd been whittling it down the rest of that season (12.0% BB, 18.3% K in June-August 2009), before being beaned by Matt Cain. From his return in September 2009 through May 2010, Wright averaged an unsightly 8.7% BB and 25.1% K rate. It took a while to gradually get that back to a more normal (for him) ratio.

Last season, Wright started with great progress in cutting his strikeouts, but they spiked in July. Combined with a September spike in 2011, that suggests that, as Wright gets older, he may be prone to getting his swing out of whack as fatigue and injuries set in (although recall that last year he was hitting with a broken finger in April). So, it's possible that this year's low strikeout rate will drift a bit as the year goes on. But on the whole, the pattern over Wright's career is that keeping his strikeouts under control is key to his productivity. Here's the monthly breakdown over his career:


I put the month-by-month graph below the fold because it's very wide.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:30 PM | Baseball 2012-14 | Comments (0)