Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't just stand there...

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were in Chicago yesterday, doing what politicians do best: making earnest promises to solve a problem they can’t do anything about.

The visit was prompted by something that wasn’t really unusual except that it happened to be caught on video and seen around the world: a Chicago teenager being killed by other Chicago teenagers.

That happens all the time. Last school year, thirty-six students in the Chicago school system were murdered; this year so far three have been killed. The overwhelming majority were African-American or Hispanic, and were killed by kids just like them. This has been going on for years, of course, but the toll has finally gotten so high that it has caught a level of attention that makes politicians uncomfortable.

So President Obama dispatched two cabinet members to make promises. To prove they were serious, they brought cash: they promised a grant of half a million bucks to the local school system to be used to combat violence.

This is pure theater, of course; nobody really thinks half a million bucks or some new Federal laws or a spate of committees and initiatives will stop poor kids from killing each other. But Obama has to do it, because most people’s first response in any social crisis is to scream for the government to not just stand there but do something.

Most people are reluctant to say out loud what they must know at some level: the government can’t solve this problem. It’s a social and cultural problem, and only social and cultural change can ameliorate it. This may come as a shock, but the government is mostly irrelevant to problems like this.

There are many elements involved in a crisis like endemic child homicide, and of course poverty plays a role, as does easy access to firearms. (As if embarrassed that the victim in this latest case was beaten to death, an op-ed writer in the Chicago Tribune hastened today to remind us that most of these killings use guns.) But if poverty was the main cause of this, Calcutta and Cairo would have astronomical homicide rates, and they don’t. And if firearms were the main cause, farm kids in Iowa would be capping each other as much as kids on the South Side of Chicago, and they’re not.

What it’s hard to come out and say is that poor black and Hispanic kids in American cities kill each other because too many of them are not being raised with the scruples, inhibitions and self-imposed restraints that keep people from resorting to violence as a first reflex.

Where do those restraints come from? They come from parents. And the great unmentionable factor in the moral collapse of the urban poor is the disintegration of the two-parent family. Around seventy percent of black children are now born out of wedlock, as are an increasing percentage of Hispanic children, now around forty-five. Most of them are being raised by their mothers, more or less alone. While fathers are present in the lives of many of these children to some degree, in most cases they are not there on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t want to single out the mothers: let’s call this the Absent Father problem. But let’s stop pretending it’s not a problem. The correlation between single parenthood and all manner of social, educational and economic disadvantages is well established. Now, correlation is not causation, but correlation is certainly information. And when you look at the demands children make on two parents, let alone one, it’s easy to see how a poor woman trying to make a living while raising children is going to struggle to be successful at either. Don’t take my word for it; ask them.

There are many reasons why a woman might wind up raising a child on her own: widowhood, divorce and abandonment are the classics. But increasingly, women are explicitly choosing to have children outside of a stable relationship. Some of them do a heroic job of it and raise happy, successful children. (It helps to be a well-off middle-class single mother with lots of family support and professional child care.) I don't want to demonize single mothers. But when that choice becomes the default option, you have to ask if that’s a good thing for the community.

It will be pointed out that out-of-wedlock birth rates are going up in a lot of countries, including prosperous European ones, without a corresponding spike in the types of problems poor black kids in the U.S. have. But we need to consider that a phenomenon like family disintegration hits vulnerable, economically weak communities harder than it hits stable, prosperous ones. If your community’s hold on economic success is precarious to begin with, adverse social phenomena pose a greater threat to it.

Of course there are lots of two-parent households that neglect, abuse and otherwise harm their children. And I’m sure you can give me any number of examples of successful single parents. I can give you some. But at some point you have to pay attention to the sociological evidence and admit that for a fragile community, single parenthood might not be the best model.

It’s easy to say that the government should just make it easier for that struggling single mother to make a living, but we’ve been down that road before: Bill Clinton even got a lot of liberals on board for welfare reform when it became evident that subsidizing single motherhood tended to produce more of it, with all the attendant problems. At some point we’ve got to revive the stable two-parent home. It has to become the norm again.

Eric Holder can’t fix this. Barack Obama can’t fix it. Only the people in the community can fix it. How can we get people to start valuing marriage, or at least permanent in-home fathering, once again? The conservatives have an answer: re-stigmatize single motherhood. Sometimes they’re quite explicit about that, as in Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed. Predictably, he took a lot of flak for that piece. (One measured response ended with a simple “F*** you.”) But that’s what moral codes have always done: they’ve tried to make people ashamed of behavior that hurts the community.

If that seems harsh and mean-spirited to you, then it’s up to you to come up with a better way. Be as positive as you want. But you have to find a way to make girls determined to delay child bearing until they are in a stable and economically viable situation, and, more importantly, you have to get boys to invest in codes of conduct that exalt restraint and responsibility.

This is one the government can't fix. It’s up to you.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Bill James is Like Karl Popper

I’ve been a Bill James fan since some time in the early eighties. Actually I’m a fan of two guys named Bill James, but this is not about the British crime writer. I’ll write about him some other time. This is about the American baseball analyst, or as he prefers to call himself, “sabermetrician”. (The term is derived from an organization devoted to statistical analysis of baseball, the SABR or Society for American Baseball Research.) I’ve been an admirer of James ever since I first ran across his Baseball Abstract twenty-five years or so ago.

If you’re not especially interested in baseball, you might think Bill James is beneath your notice, but then my wife is not especially interested in baseball, and she thinks what James does is very interesting. That’s because she works in data analysis; she’s interested in what collected numerical data can tell us about the world. And anyone who has an interest in that topic can admire James’s work.

As anyone even slightly familiar with baseball knows, numbers have always been a big part of baseball: what’s he hitting, what’s his won-lost record, how many runs has he driven in? What Bill James did, starting back in the seventies, was to think seriously about what baseball numbers really mean with regard to winning and losing ball games. He brought a trained statistician’s mind to the endeavor, along with a predilection to think outside the box, to look at what was actually happening instead of what the conventional wisdom said must be happening.

This coincided with the computerization of statistical data, which greatly facilitated the compilation and analysis of the numbers. SABR promoted the careful gathering of data by armies of amateur statisticians, and it all went into the computer, providing a vastly expanded pool of baseball data.

From looking at the data Bill James decided that a lot of what we were told about baseball was wrong. In particular, our evaluations of players and teams were faulty because we were looking at the wrong things. Batting average was not really the best measure of what a hitter was contributing to the offense; a pitcher’s won-lost record was practically useless in evaluating his actual effectiveness, a team’s home ball park distorted its overall statistics, misleading observers as to its true strengths and weaknesses.

James asked the question: what individual actions on a baseball field actually contribute to a team’s winning or losing games? His answers led him to buck conventional wisdom, claiming for example that bunting and stealing bases were high-risk strategies that often hurt the team because they squandered outs, which he called a team’s most precious commodity. He claimed that walks were an underrated offensive weapon and that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive performance than batting average.

James’s insights were not accepted by everyone. Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball tells how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane struggled against conventional wisdom and baseball old-timers in applying James’s insights to his running of the team. But Beane made believers of a lot of people by using those insights to build a small-market, low-payroll team into a perennial contender by acquiring players who were undervalued by other teams but had the skills James insisted were crucial to baseball success.

It took a couple of decades, but Bill James changed the way people understand baseball. Today newspaper sports sections publish players’ OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) alongside their batting averages, and other James-originated concepts like range factor are routinely used in evaluating players. And James himself has now been hired as a consultant by the Boston Red Sox (who have won two World Series since adopting a Jamesian approach to player evalution), a supreme concession of respect.

So what does Bill James have to do with Karl Popper, or anything serious, for that matter? Listen to James in his essay “Intro to Sabermetrics” in The Bill James Gold Mine 2009: “[The entire difference between sabermetrics and traditional sportswriting] is merely the habit of beginning with a question, rather than beginning with an answer... The person who begins with the question itself naturally focuses not on what he does know, but on what he does not know.”

Now listen to Karl Popper: “...we do not start from observations but always from problems—either from practical problems or from a theory which has run into difficulties.”

James goes on: “Forced to confront his ignorance, [the researcher] is forced to find ways to figure out the information that he is missing... Through this process, he winds up contributing things that were not known before... We are never certain... We are just doing the best we can. Our methods are always flawed, and our answers are usually tentative and muddled... But the difference between knowledge and BS is that knowledge moves forward, whereas BS moves in circles... We wind up with methods that get better over time.”

Sound familiar? Here’s how Popper put it: “Scientific theories, if they are not falsified, for ever remain hypotheses or conjectures... The growth of knowledge proceeds from old problems to new problems, by means of conjectures and refutations.”

I don’t know if Bill James has ever read Karl Popper, but he’s a textbook example of the Popperian thinker at work, and his success in increasing our understanding of baseball is testimony to the power of Popper’s supremely rational approach to the accumulation of knowledge. He's only a baseball writer, but Bill James has a lot to teach any number of supposedly serious social scientists.

So give Bill James the Karl Popper Award for the Advancement of Knowledge, and take one last Bill James quote to heart: “... there will never be a shortage of ignorance... The things that we do not know are inexhaustible.”

Which echoes, of course, my favorite Karl Popper quote: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

Sam Reaves