Thursday, May 31, 2007

The NFL As Nanny State

Your great questions (including a new one from Erika about Venezuela and Hugo Chavez) will be answered in due course, but I just had to say something about this.

Apparently, according to this news release, the NFL is banning alchohol for all players, team officials and executives, staff and guests at all NFL events including the travel to and from those events.

Well, I never...

It seems that the "nanny state" instinct has invaded the NFL. According to the release, NFL Commissoner Roger Goodell says that the decision comes in the wake of incidents in the NFL like the (highly disputed) case of Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones. Jones, who was to have been suspended for the whole 2007 season without pay, was involved in an off-field incident at a strip club where he was charged with public intoxication.

The release also intimates that the decision also comes on the heels of the death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock who was found to be drunk when he fatally crashed his vehicle on April 29th of this year.

I would like to start by saying that I do not endorse drunk driving or committing violent acts while intoxicated. The act of getting intoxicated and the actions that follow are voluntary and you should be punished for doing them; that's why there are laws that govern such things (although public intoxication can be a law that is often grossly abused).

What I take issue with is the idea that, since there were sports people involved in alcohol-related crime, this means the problem is epidemic, could cause the downfall of the NFL and requires swift and drastic action from the very top.

Give me a break. All this is is the commissioner punishing a large group of adults for the crimes of a few, for which these few are already punished by the law. The commissiar (and I use this word advisedly) of the league would claim that the reputation of the league is at stake and, by God, the only way to save it is to make sure that everyone in this league never drinks for any reason at any time while it could even be tangentially construed that they are on league time.

Using this same logic, one could imagine that, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission could say that alcohol at company Christmas parties and picnics shows badly on the company and the business community at large. Therefore, if you want your company to have publically listed stock, you must ban all alcohol from company events, including even salesmen in the field travelling on company business.

The sad thing is that this plan does not seem far-fetched at all. We live in a society that loves the abstract notion of freedom but hates the particular expressions of it. We love to see people like athletes as "role models," and I guess that we want to see whole sports leagues as shining beacons of morality that represent the best of America.

What does all of this show? It shows that the NFL does not trust its adult affiliates to be responsible for their own actions and decided to add another layer of restriction on top of the laws of the land. It shows that hoary old impulse to try and protect people from themselves is not just a natural instinct of governments, but corporations as well. It shows the further demonizing of alcohol and those who use it in our larger society (when you live in a society founded by Protestant religious fanatics, what could one expect; look at our sexual hang-ups for chrissake).

Will this make the NFL better? Well, I guess that depends on how you define "better." Will people not drink while on the job, at the aforementioned events. They can't now; they will lose their jobs. Will this do anything apart from frustrate people? Not really. Does this show that the NFL is out of touch? Yes and no. Yes because any sane, rational person can tell the difference between someone who made a mistake and is paying the price and an epidemic that threatens the integrity of the system at large. No, because this is how some people think large organizations should function; drinkers are bad, we hate stuff that is bad, therefore...

I, for one, point to two sterling examples of athletes who were at the absolute tops of their games and were some of the most monumental drinkers of our age: Andre the Giant and Joe "Willie" Namath. Read their stories (as told by the marvellous bastards of Modern Drunkard Magazine and revel in their talent and their exploits.

Then tell me that athletes (and all of the support staff around them) should never drink while even loosely involved with league activity.

If indeed sports are a reflection of the society from which they come, then this move by the NFL is absolutely indicative of our society's confounding relationship with alcohol and, to a larger extent, liberty.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Two Easy, Two Hard But Related

Kevin, as for your questions:
  1. Soon (I hope).
  2. That sounds great. I'll be in touch

Greg and Frema, you both ask interesting questions, and I think that I can relate my responses in a general commentary on the theme...but that will take until tomorrow so that I can get down what I want to say.

Thorny issues, those. Greg, I know that we have talked about this before and came to no definitive answer. How children and their rights fit in to libertarianism (and any consideration of rationality for that matter) is a difficult spot. More on this tomorrow.

In the meantime, why not enjoy excerpts from something I wrote this semester on a political figure who has always fascinated me. She was probably the first foreign leader I knew anything about. I have generally been a supporter of hers (and Blair's refusal to reverse her policies help to bear this out), but she of course has the flaws of character that make any political figure, well, interesting in the first place. Her memoirs are unintentionally revealing.

Well, look below and tell me what you think.

N.B. The names of authors mentioned within the piece are given at the end.

The "Iron Lady" Or "The Immaculate Misconception?"

During her over eleven year stay at Number Ten Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher inspired emotional responses from revulsion to adulation and analyses from scathing to laudatory. This characterization of the responses to Thatcher’s governments also broadly describes much of the writing about them both during and after their duration.

Political ideologies are notoriously hard to characterize definitively, and Thatcherism is no different. The most that can be said of a definition of Thatcherism is that it encompasses a certain set of principles, values and ideas that hint at policy directions but do not themselves represent any specific policy direction. This difficulty of defining Thatcherism is reflected in much of the writing on Thatcher’s politics.

Dennis Kavanaugh broadly defines Thatcherism as an ideology that supports the values of a strong state and a free economy. In an attempt to further nuance this broad definition, Kavanaugh argues that Thatcherism is best presented in terms of propositions. These propositions help to characterize the main features of Thatcherite ideology. They include limiting government power over individuals, allowing generally for more individual freedom of choice, promoting economic growth through free markets and insuring that the state is adequately equipped to maintain law and order at home and abroad. Kavanaugh, as will be seen with other commentators, also characterizes Thatcherism as a fissure with the past. He argues that her ideology, considered by itself as an ideology, represents a departure from the “Butskellite” consensus of the post-war years and shows a new departure in British political thinking.

Peter Riddell, somewhat differently, begins his definition of Thatcherism with the assertion that it is much more a series of moral values and an approach to leadership than anything approaching an ideology. Riddell argues that these moral values can be defined as “Victorian,” and encompass such notions as self-respect, initiative, choice, freedom, conviction, duty and faith. Also important for Riddell are the ideas that Thatcher is on a “mission” to save Britain and that in this mission she is confident, dominant and has the courage of her convictions.

Eric J. Evans states, more definitively than Kavanaugh or Riddell, that Thatcherism does not represent a coherent political ideology in any meaningful sense of the term. Evans argues that Thatcherism has an ideological nature, but it is best understood as a series of precepts similar to those enumerated by Kavanaugh and Riddell. Evans further asserts that the importance of Thatcherism lies not in the novelty of its ideas (something he, Kavanaugh and Riddell all deny) but in the specific political context of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. In this context, Evans locates the novelty of Thatcherism in the fact that Thatcher actually believed in precepts that most politicians of the day, even other Conservatives, found “unbelievably crude and shallow.” This, coupled with ideals that had been instilled (and remained) with her by a domineering father in a lower middle class, non-conformist home-hard work, responsibility, thrift, prudence-became the driving force of her personal ideology and by implication her policy agenda.

Distilling these moral propositions and proclivities which would come to define (in one way or another) her policy goals and agendas, Hugo Young posits that Thatcherism is best understood as the interaction of two personal qualities that define Thatcher and her view of the world. The first of these is moral rectitude; her appeals to righteousness colored her policies and her understanding of her role as Prime Minister. The second was pragmatism, which could soften convictions and allow for compromise in order to secure the greater political good (and stay in the good graces of the electorate). These two personal qualities intertwined and reacted on each other to form, for Young, what would come to be called Thatcherism.

Another Thatcher biographer, John Campbell, sees in Thatcherism an apparent paradox. While he also sees that Thatcher’s “moral compass” was set by her upbringing and were essentially conservative, old-fashioned and puritanical. Campbell sees these values at odds with what he calls a “culture of rampant materialism.” She believed in thrift yet incurred record government debt; she supported the idea of the family but also furthered policies that fragmented families and made them endure economic hardship; she believed in the uniqueness of Britain but her policies didn’t reflect anything that was necessarily uniquely British. Campbell asserts that Thatcher rode this seeming liberalizing tide in society and the economy, “averting her eyes” from the consequences when something insulted her values. How could she manage such dissonance?

Campbell posits the notion that the real unique quality of Thatcherism is that Thatcher discovered that most of society is middle class. Most post-war governments, according to Campbell, seemed to assume that the bulk of society was working class, and thus worried about such things as unemployment. Thatcher saw society, at least by the late 1970’s, for what it was-predominantly middle class and thus concerned with prosperity and consumption rather than production. She took advantage of this realization by tailoring her ideology and policy to making sure the middle class felt prosperous and therefore friendly to the government. The paradox is thus explained: Thatcher was a class warrior, but for the middle class. It was her abiding values, coupled with the realization that the socioeconomic nature of Britain had fundamentally changed, that best define Thatcherism as an ideology.

In considering the last of the broad interpretive factors surrounding Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, that of her leadership style and legacy, certain prevalent themes emerge. One of the most important of these is consistency. In a much-quoted speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October of 1980, Thatcher proclaimed “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Bruce Arnold argues that this predilection for consistency was a ruse, that Thatcher manufactured this notion that her views were unchanging. She was, in fact, perfectly willing to compromise and change as she had done many times in the past.

Thatcher, argues Arnold, like all politicians was adept at telling people what they wanted to hear. Young encapsulates his view of her leadership style in the phrase “one of us.” He argues that Thatcher sought out and found like-minded “fellow travelers” on her quest to remake Britain and save it from decades of decline and a pervasive national malaise.

Young also argues that Thatcher was driven by a sense that she was immersed in a constant battle, always with her “back to the wall.” Thatcher would, ultimately, win these perceived pitched battles because she saw herself on a quest to save Britain and make her great again.

Another broad characteristic of Thatcher’s leadership style is the lack of a search for consensus in policy or ideals. Riddell argues that this lack of interest in forging consensus was defined not so much by her policies but by the aforementioned “Victorian” values: middle class achievement, striving, sound money, family and the assertion of Britain’s role in the world. Riddell also argues that it was these views, coupled with the policies that were inspired by them, that led Thatcher to become popular with her “new Tory” supporters in the working class. This notion, conversely, also led her to clash with members of the “Establishment,” senior civil servants, academics and other sectors of the middle class for whom the maintenance of the post war consensus was important.

This point is also underlined by Kavanaugh in saying that Thatcher is much more of a “mobilizing” sort of leader rather than a “reconciling” sort that Thatcher’s so-called “mobilization” leadership, coupled with her focus on core values led to the problems in her cabinets. This problem in keeping ministers is most starkly underlined by the fact that by her resignation in November of 1990, she was surrounded in the Cabinet Room not by friends or people whom she trusted.

Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and the historiographical view taken of her are, as could be noted of many politicians, a mixed array of triumph and failure. Considering the academic commentary on Thatcher and her premiership, certain conclusions begin to present themselves.

Thatcherism is best understood not as an ideology, for it has poorly defined contours, uncertain boundaries and no plan of action dictated by its precepts. It does, however, have an ideological nature, based on certain core values that can be called “conservative”: a belief in self-reliance, the rights of the individual, a minimum of state intrusion and the place of Britain in the world as one of its great powers. It is these values, coupled with a leadership style that values consistency and a lack of consensus that best defines Thatcherism. It is not an ideology nor is it a style of leadership; it is a combination of the two with the unique personality of Thatcher herself.

In considering Thatcher’s policies, the most persuasive view, combining much of the academic writing on the subject, is one of mixed success and failure. Her economic policies, inspired by her values, did seem to improve the economic lot of the nation, or at least certain sectors of the population, such as the middle class and the more affluent working class. More generally, Thatcher’s policy seemed to lead to an increased sense, certainly by the 1987 election, of prosperity across the nation and a more secure feeling that Britain’s economy was finally back on track.

Thatcher’s other great area of success that of winning elections must also be viewed in their context. It may be true that the Conservatives won in 1979 and 1983 because Labour was weakened, disorganized and out of step with the electorate. This, while less the case in 1987, showed the strong hold that the Thatcher image and style had come to have over the British electorate. The shifting nature of the support for the Conservatives, however, redefines this notion of the strong hold of the Conservative message. With the growth in working class support, the Conservatives saw a decline in support in their traditional “stronghold” of the middle class. This was due to Thatcher’s style, her lack of concern with consensus and a growing feeling that the prosperity they enjoyed was not her doing, but the result of economic forces out of the government’s control. In this light, therefore, Thatcherism (such as it was) may be seen as a victim of its own success.

Margaret Thatcher stands as one of the seminal British political leaders of the twentieth century. Her blending of ideology and policy, style and substance into a seemingly coherent ethos for her age is a marvel of political image making and skill. While her policies had rather mixed results, her personality as it constituted her image showed all of the marks of a master of the art of politics. In a certain sense, the last chapter of the Thatcher legacy is yet to be written. As the Conservative party of the 1990’s, under the leadership of John Major, presided over an again sagging economy, increased dissention over Britain’s place in Europe and a nascent Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Thatcher legacy is still very much an open question. While Thatcher the politician is truly a study in ideology blended with style to produce results, Thatcher the policy maker’s effect on Britain must be viewed much more cautiously. The “Iron Lady” will continue to fascinate and complicate the discussion of late twentieth century British politics for generations to come.


Arnold, Bruce. Margaret Thatcher: A Study in Power. London: Hamish
Hamilton, 1984

Bruce-Gardyne, Jock. Mrs. Thatcher’s First Administration: The Prophets
Confounded. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Butler, David and Dennis Kavanaugh. The British General Election of 1979.
London: Macmillan, 1980.

Butler, David and Dennis Kavanaugh. The British General Election of 1983.
London: Macmillan, 1984.

Butler, David and Dennis Kavanaugh. The British General Election of 1987.
London: Macmillan, 1988.

Campbell, John. Margaret Thatcher, Volume 2, The Iron Lady. London:
Jonathan Cape, 2003.

Evans, Eric J. Thatcher and Thatcherism, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2001.

Gilmour, Ian. Dancing With Dogma. London: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Jenkins, Peter. Mrs. Thatcher’s Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era.
London: Jonathan Cape, 1987.

Kavanaugh, Dennis. Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus?
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Riddell, Peter. The Thatcher Government. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.

Walters, Alan. Britain’s Economic Renaissance: Margaret Thatcher’s
Reforms, 1979-1984. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Young, Hugo. The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. New York:
Noonday, 1990.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Welcome Back, To That Same Old Place That You Laughed About

Yes, yes I seems that the Bears loss in the Super Bowl caused me to fall off the face of the Earth.

Well, I assure you, all I did was fall of a barstool (or two) and into one of the busiest and most productive semesters I've had in some time. It really does seem to ring true that the more you do, the more you can do.

I hope to bring you my trademark blend of angry rant and intellectual discussion, and oh brother, we have a lot to discuss.

Before we launch into things that I want to talk about, how 'bout you the (hopefully) returning readers of COTL?

In an attempt at outreach (and to stir your interest again, or at all), and at the risk of doing something incredibly stupid, I will make this offer.

Each reader gets to ask me one question...anything at all (when I say anything, I do so with the understanding that my parents read this thing, but oh well, I was the dumbshit who wanted to do this).

Go ahead, hit me with your best shot.

Oh, and check out my two new posts: a book review and some musings on my first semseter teaching people something.

(Extra points for the name of the sitcom from who's theme song I stole the title for this post).

Journey To The Other Side Of The Desk

I recently completed my first teaching appointment as a teaching assistant in the history department. I have to admit I went into this whole exercise a bit I am, for the first time doing something close to what I will (hopefully) do for the rest of my life. What if I think it sucks? What if I am really bad at it?

Legitimate concerns, or at least I think they were.

Well, turns out that I don't think it sucks and apparently I am not really bad at it. In fact, it seems that I have somewhat of a knack for these things.

(Huge sigh of relief).

I TA'ed a 400-level (mostly juniors and seniors) class on the history of Imperial Russia, 1801-1917, a subject that I have a lot of experience with. If there is a European country that I know almost as well as Britain or Ireland, it's Russia. It is an interesting time period: defeating Napoleon, the Crimean War, the Great Reforms, the 1905 Revolution. Interesting people therein, too, everyone from Pushkin to Rasputin to Sergei Witte to Konstantin Pobedonostsev and many, many more.

I got to crush commonly held misconceptions (the British were the central factor in the defeat of Napoleon, all the tsars were iron-fisted autocrats, Russia was the most centralized state in Europe) and reinforce others (all of the bad stuff you know about Nicholas II is all true). Wars, famines, revolutions, angry peasants, clueless nobles, raving revolutionaries...great stuff.

It took a few weeks to deal with some things, like the awkward silences (seems the best thing to do is let them stew and wait for someone to speak up) and the leading them where we needed to go (especially toward the end...dealing with senioritis sucks even more than having it).

All in all, I think everyone had a good semester, we learned, we laughed (usually at my feeble attempts at humor...I told a really bad joke about Lenin), we looked at a lot of maps, read hilarious (to me, at least) political cartoons from the Crimean War. It was great.

I also must admit that the ability to score people's performance, on a scale of my choosing, was a power that I have looked forward to is not easy, but if you set definitive boundaries and make expectations as clear as possible, people at the very least cannot claim that their grades were given at random (although after fifty-six final exams, I was tempted by this system).

I thought it was a frightfully good wheeze overall...some of my students would not agree with that assessment...their fault, really.

Stone Cold Freak (Economics Version)

Levitt, Steven D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005.

When books like this sell a bunch of copies, people like me naturally become suspicious. I guess it is the knee jerk reaction of denizens of the "ivory tower" to automatically sneer at an attempt to "popularize" some aspect of academic thinking. In fact, being called a popularizer is about as bad a thing that you can call any academic. Like being called a child molester, it is a tough label to wash off.

What I do know is this: Levitt and Dubner sold more copies of this in a week than some academics sell in an entire career. I am a bit of a heretic, but I think that there is something to be said for that...along the lines of "laughing all the way from the ivory tower to the bank, several times."

This book did more than sell a bunch of copies; it sold a shitload of copies, and for a book that even hints at the fact that it is about economics, that is something indeed. The "dismal science" is not one that seems to interest a lot of people, but it is like many of the humanities and social sciences...present it well and people will become interested and perhaps learn something in the process.

First off, this book is easy to read, funny in parts and a well crafted book (due in no small part to the involvement of a journalist...when academics try to do these things on their own, it is usually a disaster). It does make good summer reading (at least for someone like me). It is not, however, the funniest book on economics out there: that goes without hesitation to P.J. O'Rourke's 1999 book Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics.

What the authors (principally Levitt) argue is that if morality represents the way people would like the world to work, economics represents how it actually does work. While eschewing that there is any central point to the book, Levitt and Dubner do proffer some key notions that do center the work.

These being that incentives are the cornerstone of modern life; conventional wisdom is often wrong; dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes; "experts" use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda; and knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world less so (13-14).

Well, that seems simple enough, almost simple that it should not take an economics professor from the University of Chicago and a New York Times journalist to figure them out. That is exactly their point and what makes their book so enjoyable and accessable. They show economics (and by implication most of the social sciences) for what they are - studies of how actual people behave and interact with each other and their surroundings.

Their case studies in the chapters that follow vary in interest level and novelty from things that a six year old could tell you (everyone, given the right payoff, will cheat) to the controversial (the decision in Roe v. Wade led directly to the decline in violent crime in the 1990's). All manner of data are marshalled in making these claims.

I found the chapters on crack dealers in the CHA housing projects, the reasons for the declining crime rates and factors that lead to success in parenting (Chapters 3, 4 and 5, respectively) particularly interesting, if for no other reason the methods employed to reach each conclusion. The story of how he got the data on the organization and economics of crack dealers is harrowing enough to be a story of its own (and in fact it soon will be).

The chapters on incentives and information-as-power seem like cases too easily made, and things that seem explanatory. We would not have common phrases like "everybody has his/her price" or "knowledge is power" if these were not intuitive notions. They do, however, speak at some length about how convetional wisdom is often wrong, but it seems that they make the exception in these two cases. The chapter on baby names and success (Chapter 6) just seems silly...we have a Secretary of State named Condoleeza (perhaps she is the exception that proves the rule, but I still think their argument is a stretch).

What this book does best is show people how economists and social scientists look at the world. Levitt says that economics is primarily a science of measurement. I partially agree with him.

I have always believed that economics is primarily a behaviorial science, studying what are some of the least generally interesting but some of the most important human behaviors. Unlike psychologists, who get to talk about fun stuff like crazy people, economists study things like incentives, opportunity costs, limited resources and unlimited wants and so on. Not the sexy (literally in some cases) stuff of Freud and the boys, but ultimately more useful in understanding how people interact with their world on a daily basis.

All in all, this book was a worthy read, even if some of the case studies are a bit far-fetched. They will leave you thinking "well, maybe they have a point there." Or maybe not.