Iran Nuclear Agreement


Critics of the Iran deal say Iran doesn’t give up much and gets a lot.  It makes sense to try to get just about any deal whatsoever, though, if you assume Iran does not find it in its interests to build a bomb and is looking for a face-saving way out.  (I recommend this 2009 article for an analysis of Iran’s national interests along these lines.)  If you assume Iran has grand or even apocalyptic ideological ambitions, like Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China, or that it is entirely irrational, the deal seems to make less sense.  On the other hand, if Iran isn’t deterred by rational considerations like the response of other Middle Eastern nations, why should it be deterred by sanctions?

When countries view it as a kind of law of nature that their actions will lead to counteractions by other powers, their national pride doesn’t come much into play; no point in getting angry about a law of nature.  So for Iran, if its acquiring the bomb leads to a Saudi bomb program or various other destabilizing and undesirable results, and doesn’t end up advancing their interests, well, no reason to do it.  Diplomatically presented threats can allow communication of intentions with less guesswork, while still not ruffling feathers.  But years of very public threats, and America’s denial of Iran’s perceived “right” to uranium enrichment, bring national pride into play, and the desire not to give in. 

There’s counters to this argument: Iran may be rational, but doesn’t it have grand ambitions?  Might they really mean this “death to America” stuff, and their rhetoric about Israel?  Moreover, there’s reasons we’ve long sought to marginalize this regime as uniquely dangerous, rather than treating it as just another competitor for power: the taking of Americans as hostages, the sponsorship of terrorism, the 1994 attack on Jews in Argentina. 

However, though a state functions as a single actor, it of course is the product of the actions of many people.  Different people in Iran will have different ambitions.  It is at least possible that we can calculate that hard-liners are out, and that a confidence-building deal will help keep them out.  Indeed, the worse the deal is for the West from the perspective of critics, the better it serves as a signal of trust.

Dogmatism and the Role of Government

In the post below, I used the tax rate debate how one side’s assumption that the other is dogmatic and absolutist leads it to itself take a dogmatic position with absolutist implications.  That’s true of the broader debate over the role of government as well.

Progressives view any opposition to any government initiative they favor as “anti-government.”  Their arguments usually take the form “(the interstate highway system/the Manhattan Project/World War II/child labor laws/desegregation) was good; () was a government action; the policy we are proposing is a government action; therefore, the policy we are proposing is a good idea, QED.”  If this were a valid form of argument, it would imply totalitarianism, a rejection of all limits on government.  Or, one could use the same form with different, true premises, as libertarians often do: “The state killed 100 million of its own people in the twentieth century, therefore the state is evil, QED.” 

Most people aren’t absolutists- they are neither totalitarians nor anarchists.  Yet progressives, at least, frame their arguments in absolutist terms that delegitimizes debate over the role of government.  Right-wingers will do this, too (“Obama is a commuist!”) but this rarely makes it into respectable discourse, whereas the progressive version does.*

Really, the libertarians have the stronger case there.  The autobahn wasn’t worth the Holocaust.  Really, supporters of government action should be the ones arguing that, contrary to anarchists, limited government really is possible.  They should address the question of the morally legitimate role of government.   Anarchists, or Jeffersonians who want the central government to have as little power as possible, easily win the day if the question is one of the costs and benefits of government in the abstract.  The Hamiltonian answer, that we can give government lots of power and still limit the sphere in which it exercises that power, is really the only one that makes any sense.

* In addition to the routine adoption of the flawed form of argument (“the state did something good, therefore, everything the state does is good,”) note that many progressives, including Jonathan Chait, are obsessed with Paul Ryan’s Randian influences, and that Obama considers Paul Ryan’s budget “social Darwinism,” meaning that Ryan wants to let the poor die out so as to strengthen the gene pool.

Tax Rates and Dogmatism

In a recent post about the claim that JFK was conservative, I addressed the point that he pushed tax cuts; I noted that his tax cuts left top marginal rates at 70%.  If direction is all that matters, that makes him conservative, I said, otherwise not.

Matt Yglasias makes a similar argument about a George Will column arguing that Kennedy was conservative, but he seems to suggest that direction doesn’t matter at all: “[Will’s column] remarkably fails to tell us what tax rate JFK favored…[After the Kennedy tax cuts, signed by LBJ,] the top marginal income tax rate went all the way down to 70 percent….That doesn’t sound all that conservative to me.”  But surely lowering the rate from 90 to 70 percent is a conservative action, as far as it goes.

Yglesias continues: “Or, rather, I suppose the fact that Will would think it’s conservative highlights what’s wrong with the way conservatives think about tax policy.”  Whereas liberals want to get the right tax rate, by the standard of revenue maximization, conservatives just want to lower taxes, at whatever level they are, Yglesias says; conservatives assume liberals are their mirror image and just want to raise taxes, no matter what, so in their minds, “liberals are yearning for a 100 percent tax rate so any admission that any rate—even 91 percent!—might be too high, suddenly turns JFK into Grover Norquist.”

So for Yglesias, conservatives view liberals as yearning for a 100 percent tax rate, and this shows their anti-empirical, absolutist way of viewing the tax debate.  But progressives automatically claim that opponents of any tax hike, or supporters of any cut, are “anti-tax ideologues” or “zealots” rather than applying detailed analysis to the question of the optimal rate of the tax in question for the locale in question.  Anti-tax dogma is behind any position on a directional change, under the progressive assumption; in other words, conservatives are “yearning for a 0 percent tax rate.” 

If you assume that any support for a tax cut, or opposition to a tax hike, is based on dogmatism, that must mean there’s no evidence for such a position, ever, which means you can support all tax hikes, and oppose all tax cuts, without looking at evidence- in other words, dogmatically.

If Yglesias were right, progressives would not take their bearings at all from the status quo tax rate, but simply apply objective analysis to figure out what the tax rate should be.  This isn’t true at all, on taxes or on the broader political debate.  Consider the way progressives talk about spending cuts, for instance. 

For another instance, note that progressives consider it prima facia evidence of unreasonableness that conservatives are unwilling to increase taxes in exchange for spending cuts in a budget balancing deal.  If they were just looking for the optimal levels of spending and taxation, this wouldn’t be the case.  Suppose we take in $5 of revenue and spend $7 each year, and we want to balance the budget.  If you take your bearings by the status quo, and the direction and amount of change is important, you will say we should spend $6 and tax $6.  But if you’re just trying to create an optimal budget, independent of such considerations, you might favor balancing the budget through only spending cuts, so that we take in $5 and spend $5; or you might even want to cut taxes, so that we take in $4 and spend $4. 

Supposedly sophisticated progressive policy wonks routinely parrot Democratic talking points about “tax cuts for the rich,” and being sophisticated they often call these “regressive” tax cuts.  But “regressive” cuts leave us with a progressive tax code.  If you weren’t taking your view of what is “normal” by the status quo, or the status quo ante tax cut, you would simply look at how the tax code distributes the tax burden.  Progressives also refer to tax cuts as costing government money, which implies either that they view previous rates as normal or (as Rush Limbaugh always alleges) that they view all money as belonging to government, with any we keep as ultimately a gift (in other words, that they yearn for a 100% tax rate after all, morally speaking, though as a pragmatic matter it may be necessary to allow greedy people to keep something in order to get them to work, or to install solar panels.) 

Was Kennedy a Conservative?


A month ago, Jeff Jacoby claimed in the Boston Globe that JFK was conservative.  Some evidence he marshals in support of this claim:

Kennedy cut taxes

He cut top marginal tax rates from 90% to 70%.  If direction is all that matters, then that makes him a conservative.  But on top marginal rates the Overton Window, and the current state of policy, is well to the right of where it was in Kennedy’s time.

Kennedy said “I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort.”

That’s just the sort of token, lip-service reassurances that are a staple of the rhetoric of all Democratic Presidents and candidates.  It’s a defensive point coming from them, not an offensive one.  A similar remark from the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, with fuller context, is revealing: “I know that there are those who want to turn everything over to the government. I don’t at all. I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years.  The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so.  I don’t believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action.”  Everybody wants the government to do only what it can do best, I suppose, but there are different ideas of how extensive that sphere is, to say the least.

He favored huge increases in military spending

Absolutely true, of course.  This wouldn’t be welcome in today’s Democratic Party.  And I can’t just say this is because the Cold War is over, because obviously in the 70s and 80s the left hated defense spending.  Nevertheless, more defense spending was just part of Kennedy’s theme that the U.S. needed a more vigorous government to defeat the USSR.  Political alliances are now such that supporters of high defense spending form a coalition with opponents of social spending.  Kennedy-Johnson years were a time of commitment, usually excessive, in all directions- coming off beating the Depression, winning WWII, the 50s boom, and dominating the world economically, what could America not accomplish if only it got some will power and a sense of purpose.  We would pay any price, bear any burden, end poverty, go to the moon, etc.  Kennedy’s opening remarks in that debate set the tone.

Liberal Republicans were more liberal than Kennedy

That just tells us that the Parties weren’t as ideologically sorted as they are today.  It tells us nothing about whether the center was left or right of where it is today, or whether Kennedy was left or right of center.  Idiosyncratic Northeastern aristocrats like Rockefeller and Cabot Lodge are one thing, but I don’t think they represented the mainstream of the Party; that would be Nixon, right of Rockefeller but obviously well left of Goldwater or, later, Reagan.  Kennedy was considered more liberal than Nixon, and it’s clear in the debate that both candidates see it that way, but also that there’s really very little difference- it’s really a coin flip, it’s a time of post-New Deal ideological consensus. 

I think it’s clear that Nixon would be too far left for the GOP today.  I’m not even sure he was right of Clinton or Obama as President (I mean 70% taxes, wage and price controls, a national health insurance proposal, “we are all Keynesians now,” the 55 mph speed limit- you could make the case, right?)  On the other hand, Kennedy didn’t support gay marriage or abortion, so maybe he was conservative after all- these exercises are sort of problematic.

Kennedy was anticommunist

Hayek writes in Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

The preservation of a free system is so difficult because it requires a constant rejection of measures which appear to be required to secure particular results, on no stronger grounds than that they conflict with a general rule, and frequently without our knowing what will be the costs of not observing the rule in the particular instance. A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic.

So what is the general rule to be? There must be no infringements whatsoever on free exchange? Government should stick to the night watchman role? No. Hayek himself accepted numerous infringements on pure economic freedom. Hayek believes old classical liberal principles that once guided action no longer command assent, and we must find something to replace them: “The loss of [belief in principles] and the preference for expediency is in part a result of the fact that we no longer have any principles which can be rationally defended.” He suggests that principles such as “limit government to functions x, y, and z” or “laissez faire” are out, then.*

So what should replace them? Hayek, rather notoriously, never tells us. At least, I haven’t read all of Hayek, but in chapter four of Law, Legislation and Liberty, the source of all Hayek quotations and paraphrases so far in this post, the chapter where he calls for a defense of liberty based on dogmatic principle, he doesn’t tell us what that principle is to be. When I saw the “defence of freedom must be dogmatic” quote on the cafehayek blog, I went to check the context but accidentally looked at page 61 of The Constitution of Liberty (Hayek) rather than page 61 of Law, Legislation and Liberty (Hayek) and found him saying something strikingly similar, and again not providing us with the principle he called for. It seems to me he rather made a career out of this.

What’s needed, apparently, are principles that, unlike past prejudices, can be defended rationally, but not on the grounds that a particular violation will have predictable negative results. Such a principle must allow government to take desirable actions, but not undesirable ones, yet must not attempt to look at each action individually and say what its results will be. It must be justified ultimately on the grounds that it developed as part of an organic order beyond our understanding, so to violate it must have literally unimaginable consequences. Hayek recognizes his basic difficulty: it would be best on Hayekian grounds, he makes clear, to have mere prejudices, whose rationale we cannot and do not try to articulate, limit government action. But such prejudices have been overcome, the lack of articulated rationale being part of their undoing.

Part of the answer is for Hayek to come along and give an articulate justification for the concept of tacit knowledge, which was his great contribution. It now becomes rational to accept that much of our knowledge cannot be articulated. But that being said, what dogmatic principle are we to adopt? Should we go back to “government should only do x, y and z,” or should we now say “besides x, y, and z, government should now do a, b, and c, but should not do d”? By what principle do we exclude d? Is the caricature version of Hayek (food stamps lead inevitably to serfdom) right after all? Now that our organically developed prejudices have sadly been overcome, by what principle do we decide which principle to adopt?

If things are really as radically unknowable as Hayek sometimes, as in LL&L, ch. 4, I don’t think there’s any way out. You can’t tell which prejudices are desirable to keep because of their organic justification, and which ones are desirable to discard as part of further organic development. Even the prejudice in favor of rationally defensible principles may be justified as organically developed. And of course the attempt to articulate the principles behind the organic order becomes fraught with perils. In the course of this same LL&L, ch. 4, it takes Hayek from trying to find the organic basis for the previously existing free society that he saw us losing, to positing the need for a utopian ideal (!), which has never really existed, but which we need to guide us close enough to a free society; while, of course, not telling us what this ideal is to be.*


The solution, I think, is to depart from the extreme claims of our limited knowledge. For instance, we cannot know everything we need to know to determine the market-clearing price of an item, or to make a pencil. But we can know why we cannot know this, and we can know the consequences of price controls, or of attempts to build pencils through a centrally planned economy, or to collectivize agriculture. Price controls will bring about shortages, central planning will suffer from an insurmountable information problem and prevent resources from going to their highest-valued use;** thanks partly to Hayek, we know and understand these things. Protectionism and farm subsidies will create dead-weight losses.

More broadly, we can say that grand plans, comprehensive changes, are likely to fail for some unforeseeable reason. “But World War II! The moon landing! Yes! We! Can!” World War II was the failure of a grand plan, by the Germans and Japanese. It’s not that governments are so good at wars, it’s just that they’re going against other governments; someone has to win. There’s a reason we say “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” and why soldiers coined the phrases “snafu” and “fubar.” Ken Burns’s WWII documentary is full of really terrible mistakes by the Allies. Eisenhower, that wise and prudent statesman, had the bright idea that all the troops, everywhere, should be given a turkey, regardless of local knowledge. One group of men was overmatched against powerful German cannons, protected only by darkness, I think in a forest somewhere. The damn Huns were doing heavy damage, but they did not know exactly where they were firing. The major obviously did not want to set a fire to cook turkey, and asked his superior for an exemption; the superior said no, sorry, orders are orders. They set their fire, and the Germans shellacked them mercilessly.

The moon landing is a relatively simple thing- just go to the big rock, plant a flag, say grab some stuff, say something idealistic and go home. The physical engineering is I’m sure very complicated (nobody doubts the human mind is capable of feats of physical engineering and science), but the social engineering is nonexistent. The moon landing is just the type of pointless vanity project, like the pyramids, that government is perfectly capable of succeeding at if it can marshal the necessary resources. The aqueducts and the interstate highway system would are more useful instances of the same core competence.

There might not be a bright line between grand and non-grand plans, or comprehensive and non-comprehensive reforms, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that food stamps are on one side of the spectrum, ObamaCare is on the other. Philips Curve-style fine-tuning might be on the “grand design” end of the spectrum, or perhaps is an instance of micromanagement and tinkering that is open to the same basic objections, while a Friedman-style rules based monetary policy would be closer to the “create an order in which free people can operate” core competence of government.

Finally, our reason for rejecting certain government actions a priori, regardless of expedience arguments, need not be based on organic justifications at all. Hayek thought all moral principles were reducible to their own survival value, but we need not follow him here. The moral theory behind socialized medicine is, basically, that society rather than individuals should make decisions about medical spending. Rationing by well-intentioned experts is morally preferable to rationing by impersonal market forces. If you don’t believe that, you won’t believe in socialized medicine; if you do believe that, you probably will. All wonkery is subordinate to this basic ideological divide, and often gives only a veneer of factual basis to an argument based on speculation, narratives and ideology. Spending should be made efficient in terms of aggregate outcomes, so that society should not spend money on health care if the health benefits are not worth the costs. But it is individual human beings who experience monetary costs and health benefits- who experience at all, in fact. So the meaningful question is whether an individual’s health benefits are worth the costs to him, not whether they are worth the costs to society. And it is individuals, not societies, who have intrinsic worth and meaning and all that sort of thing- at least, so I claim. I’ll not justify that claim here, only note that it is the kind of a priori argument that one can make in opposition to certain state actions.

We might equally conclude that programs like MedicAid are justified. I suppose they involve interpersonal utility comparisons in the final analysis, but they don’t rely on calculations of social cost vs. social benefit. In other words, we see that a poor person is sick and treat medicine as an objective need, not an arbitrary preference.*** It’s true the government has to decide what the person “really needs,” but it’s not taking from them a choice they would otherwise have. The same basic logic applies to food stamps.**** There is no real attempt to calculate aggregate social costs and benefits involved, and the only real utility comparison going on is that a middle class person has less need for a very small amount of money than a poor person has for food and medicine. If government sets about to buy everyone’s medicine, or everyone’s food, or everyone’s shoes, or cover everyone’s retirement, we have a different situation.

* No, really. We shift from treating illiberal actions as erosions of a preexisting organic order, to the claim that “to some extent the guiding model of the overall order will always be an utopia, something to which the existing situation will be only a distant approximation and which many people will regard as wholly impractical. Yet it is only by constantly holding up the guiding conception of an internally consistent model which could be realized by the consistent application of the same principles, that anything like an effective framework for a functioning spontaneous order will be achieved. Adam Smith thought that ‘to expect, indeed, that freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain is as absurd as to expect an Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it.’ Yet seventy years, later, largely as a result of his work, it was achieved.” So Adam Smith exposed the order of mercantilism to rational criticism, and got it overthrown!

** There’s value judgment involved here, obviously: in the USSR, those who benefited from the system were probably pretty satisfied with the allocation of resources. The value judgment is that subjective individual preferences are the standard of value. The economist’s insight is that voluntary exchange creates results that reflect individuals’ priorities and make these individual preferences part of a social system that exists to fulfill them. The “utilitarian” and “moral” case for free markets thus become identical, and hundreds of thousands of college libertarians can find a new hobby.

*** Here the claim about objective morality in the above paragraph (human beings have intrinsic moral meaning, by virtue of being human) overcomes the subjectivist claim in the same paragraph (individual preferences are the standard.) Claims about social costs and benefits are, however, thoroughly flawed in both conceptions.

**** Though Mayor Bloomberg tried to prove caricature Hayek right by banning the use of food stamps to pay for junk food.

The Importance of the Long Baseball Season

Baseball blogger Joe Posnaski speculates on ways baseball would be more like football if it had a 16 game schedule, with one game per week.  The ace starter would be your only starter, he says, and the five to eight teams with true aces would be at a huge advantage, similar to the five teams or so with elite quarterbacks.  Some starters would be game managers, just trying to keep their team in the game, he says.  The difference is that the pitcher is more truly alone- he can’t “keep the offense off the field,” nor can he rely on his running game or punter.  He can avoid turnovers (big innings) by avoiding walks, however. 

You would see teams stuck with a game manager bringing in great glovemen, outfielders if he’s a flyball pitcher, infielders if he’s a groundball pitcher.  They would try to build an offense good enough to take a lead against other teams’ game managers, then perhaps bring in their defensive team once they succeeded in doing so.

Posnaski anticipates a “backup pitcher” or long reliever on each roster, with two short relief specialists.* 

If there’s four or five pitchers on a roster, you have 20 roster spots to play with and can do all sorts of crazy things: Posnaski suggests signing Usain Bolt as designated pinch-runner.  You can play for matchups like crazy, especially in the late innings (but beware- perhaps games would have a greater tendency to go to extra innings.)  Perhaps a very strong-armed catcher can be brought in to neutralize the opposing running game in key situations.  You would probably have lineups structured to beat aces (you’ll want Ichiro leading off) and alternative lineups structured to beat up bad pitching (you’ll want Jay Buhner or Jim Thome batting fourth or fifth.)

Posnaski claims that with every run more valuable and teams having more preparation  time, “Baseball would get its own Bill Walsh or Sid Gillman who would revolutionize offense.  Baseball would get its own Buddy Ryan or Tom Landry who would revolutionize defense.”  Don’t see it.  In football, offense is about getting eleven people acting in concert to put the defense at a disadvantage.  In baseball, offense is about…hitting a baseball.  That’s 90% of it.  The rest is base-running- probably you would see a comeback of the Jackie Robinson-style base running genius, but that’s a matter of individual skill and improvisation, not coach’s strategy.  There’s a few actions that coordinate hitting and running- the hit-and-run, for instance, and the bunt.  Would there really be more?  Posnaski foresees “20 different kinds of hit and run,” and “all sorts of innovations that my mind can’t reach now.”  I don’t see it.

Similarly, Posnaski says, players would watch far more film: “I’ve spoken to many former baseball players who see no value at all in the video work that teams do.  They say that breaking down the swing too much can mess with your mindset.  They say that breaking down the pitcher fills the mind with too many thoughts.  Hitting is a natural act.  ‘See the ball, hit the ball,’ Tony Perez always said.

“I’m not sure how much of that is true but I do believe this: If they played baseball just once a week, managers and coaches and players would SCOUR over video just like in football….They would gameplan each game differently.”  They can’t do these things now, he says, because there’s no time.

The thing is, though, hitters most likely react physically to the spin on the ball before they register it consciously.  Some are purely “see ball, hit ball” batters, some do some guessing.  What we call guessing may be more like anticipation, a slight prejudice or shift in focus that is subject to rapid adjustment mid-pitch.  Things happen too fast for use of conscious strategy- or rather, some players manage to benefit from studying and anticipating despite these limitations, but the game is welcoming for those who do not have or need this skill, and that won’t change.

Baseball would be dramatically more violent, Posnaski says;  Perhaps football is so violent because there is so much time to recover between games and each one matters so much, and baseball is so non-violent because there are so many games.  I think conventional wisdom is right, and it’s the other way around.  Football has a short season because it is inherently violent.  Posnaski himself notes that baseball used to be much more violent, but violent baseball (spikes up, basepath collisions, beanballs) is just inherently different from a game where you sprint into people and hit or tackle them on every play.  Still, perhaps baseball would return to the levels of violence of the Ty Cobb days.

Baseball would get better TV ratings and crowds, Posnaski says, since there would be more buildup and importance to each game.  Perhaps football isn’t inherently a better television game than baseball.

I would say that in theory, football is a terrible television game.  You can’t see half of what’s going on; the camera focuses on the quarterback, but does not tell you what he’s seeing.  Even apart from that, few of us really understand the process behind the play.  Somehow, a guy got open and the QB threw him the ball, or nobody got open and the QB had to throw it away, or someone was open but the QB didn’t see him.  Or, sometimes, the defensive lineman gets to him for a sack, or forces him from the pocket to improvise, or else makes him move around in the pocket- this at least we can see, and so is a main source of excitement.  Even if we could see what was going on, few of us understand the process behind a play at more than a rudimentary level; we depend on the commentator and replay cameraman for interpretation.  We really only see the results of the play- a spectacular catch, an interception, a long run with broken tackles; exciting!- without the process behind it.

Plus there’s those penalty flags on every other play, which are terribly disruptive and mean you’re never sure whether a play really happened.  Replay challenges, needless to say, make things five times worse.

In baseball, on the other hand, there is plenty of time to follow the process.  We can see pitch type and location, and there’s time between pitches to consider how the pitcher is setting the hitter up, what the count is, what the hitter’s approach is.  On the other hand, for those who only want to see results, all this process is boring.  I myself find myself enjoying watching football, simply because the results of the play are so often exciting and feel like they are potentially crucial to the outcome of a game- the way football is structured, with its downs and its 100-yard field, plus the fact that a game only happens once a week, it creates a feeling of magnified importance for each play.

Somehow, the once-a-week intensity seems to fit football better, and the long grind seems to fit baseball, even apart from the different violence and preparation levels the games lend themselves to.

Posnaski claims baseball stats would mean a less.  This is true for one of the reasons he advances, small sample size.  However, he also says “everyone knows that baseball is the numbers game.  This is again at least partially a function of the 162-game schedule.  It isn’t necessarily that baseball statistics are BETTER than the football statistics.  Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.  But baseball has so many games, the only way you can really keep up with the game is through the numbers.  We need them to make sense of a very long season with millions of events.”  But of course baseball stats are better than football stats.  In football, stats attribute the outcome of the actions of all eleven offensive players to one man, the quarterback, on passing plays.  On running plays, they attribute them to the running back.  On passing plays, the receiver who caught the ball also gets credit separately from the quarterback, attributing the result to him; but obviously, having a good teammate as a receiver diminishes your own receiving stats.

You don’t care that Aaron Rodgers completed 67.2% of his passes for 8.0 yards per completion and ten interceptions, or whatever, you care about that lazer he threw on the run to the well-covered receiver, that he put just outside the sidelines, where the receiver could still haul it in.  You don’t care that Tony Romo completed 64.3% of his passes for 15 interceptions, or whatever, you care that he threw another bad interception on Monday Night Football.  You don’t care about Calvin Johnson’s stats, you care about all the spectacular catches he’s made, and all the balls DeSean Jackson drops.  And so forth.

None of this is true in baseball, a game of almost pure one-on-one matchups.  There’s a lot of games in the basketball season, 82, than in football.  As a matter of ratios, that’s closer to baseball’s 162 than football’s 16 (2/1 versus 5/1).  And we still rely far more on subjective impressions of basketball players than we do of baseball players, though we treat stats as more meaningful than in football.  That’s because basketball is more about team context than is baseball.  You can more meaningfully account for individual contributions than in football; rebounding statistics in particular are useful.  But obviously, we don’t treat one 20-point scorer on 48% shooting as interchangeable with another.


* For whatever reason, he creates a separate roster spot for “backup” and “emergency starter/reliever.”