Wednesday, March 19, 2008

CBJ playoff hopes

Back in November, Earl Bruce predicted that the Buckeyes would get a chance to play for the national championship. He knew that people would scoff and say that there were too many teams ahead of OSU in the BCS, but he also knew that most of those teams would end up playing one another and knocking themselves out of contention. As it turns out, Earl was right, and OSU jumped from 7 to 5 to 3 to 1 during a span of time in which they played only a single game (beating Michigan).

I'm looking at the NHL standings, and as much as I want to be cynically dismissive of Coach Hitchcock's contention that the Blue Jackets still have a shot at the playoffs, I think he's actually right. There are 3 teams that are 7 points up on the jackets (2 with one fewer game remaining), 1 with 3 points and 1 fewer game remaining, and 1 team 2pts. up with 1 fewer game remaining. The CBJ would have to jump 3 of those teams to make the playoffs. One of those teams is Nashville, who play essentially the same schedule as the CBJ the rest of the way, including two head-to-head games. If Columbus plays better than Nashville the rest of the way, they will pass them in the standings.

The other four teams are all in the same division, and all play each other multiple times in the 8-9 games they have remaining. If two of them go on a tear, the victories will come against the other two. If two of those teams play 2 games below .500 down the stretch, 6-2-1 would pull the CBJ into a tie for eighth. 7-2 would get them in.

That's a bunch of ifs, but not as outrageous as I originally thought.

Why I Don't Protest

I've said it before, but it's the anniversary today, and most of what's being said has been said before, so I guess I shouldn't let that stop me. There are two major rhetorical positions on the Iraq War, and I don't find either one very satisfying. The first is the one you would expect me to have issue with, and it relies on the following constellation of assertions:

  • Saddam was Evil.
  • Inspections were not working.
  • Invasion was both right and necessary.
  • We are approaching victory.
  • The consequences of failure are unacceptable.
  • Surrendering to our enemies will embolden them.
  • America must fight Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, or we will have to fight them at home.

I'm more sympathetic to the standard opposing position, but I find it difficult to apply the same standards to both arguments and have either one hold up very well. The opposing argument says:

  • The American public was lied to in order to create fear and hostility.
  • Politicians caved to this fear and hostility to authorize a war they knew was unjustified.
  • The government was wildly unrealistic in their expectations for the war.
  • Nobody would have supported the invasion if they had been told up front that after five years, the U.S. would have spent more than half of a billion dollars, seen 4,000 US soldiers killed, 30,000 wounded in battle, another 30,000 requiring medical attention, 145 dead of self-inflicted wounds, and 130,000 still on the ground.
  • The presence of US troops is causing more problems than it solves.
  • The Iraqi government will never take over as long as we continue to maintain a military presence.
  • We need to get out.
  • Sooner is better than later, today is better than tomorrow, yesterday would be the preferred option.

Like I said the first argument is weak, and at times laughable. By point:
  • Hussein was worse than Pinochet, Amin, Castro, Stalin??? The content of a foreign leader's character has never been, and never should be, a primary driving force in US foreign policy.
  • Inspections weren't working in large part because there was nothing to find. Although absence of evidence makes for poor evidence of absence, it should also be noted that the final Blix report in March of 2003 declared that there were no longer substantial hindrances on the inspectors from the Iraqi government. Hussein blinked. We went in anyway.
  • The war has turned out to increase suffering and harm US interests. Nearly any other definition of "right" or "necessary" can be refuted in just as few words.
  • We had two objectives when we went in: Regime Change and removal of WMDs. Done and Done. That's "victory," and we achieved it and have moved well beyond it. What we have now is not a war, and there is no real "victory" or "surrender" possible anymore.
  • The consequences of failure may be unacceptable. This may not prevent us from having to accept them.
  • Beyond the fact that surrender is an inappropriate concept given the context, that even John McCain seems to have no clue who are enemies are, and that emboldening terrorists who are supposedly cowardly by definition creates somewhat of a paradox, it is simply an empirical question.
  • Finally, Al Qaeda was not in Iraq until there were US troops to provide targets in Iraq. This basically means that the argument is "we should fight them over there, so that they don't have to come over here to fight us. It seems we would hate to impose on the terrorists, and make them pack up and follow us to America. Of course, as another option, we could perhaps reduce security at our bases in Europe and advertise our vulnerability there. This is the "We should fight Al Qaeda in NATO countries so that we don't have to fight them at home or in the Middle East" strategy, and it might have the added bonus of helping us to rebuild a coalition (is Poland still with us? I forget).

Unfortunately, no matter how easy it is to point out what people have done wrong and to pick apart their excuses, and no matter how necessary it may be to do so before meaningful steps can be taken going forward, it does almost nothing to help determine what those next steps should be. People who think that being knowledgeable about the reasons to avoid a war automatically translates into being knowledgeable about how to end a war have made a bigger leap than I am capable of making, even if the post-hoc arguments against the war were as credible in February of 2003 as they seem today, which I am just as unsure of. By point:

  • The American public was exaggerated to, in order to create support for the war. The evidence for nuclear materials was bogus, and was known to be bogus. On the other hand, Hussein was known to have experimented with chemical and biological weapons, and the destruction of said weapons was exceedingly difficult to confirm given the lax record keeping, lack of cooperation, and possible ignorance of the Iraq government. Absent free and unfettered inspections, we were left with an increasingly untenable sanctions regime.
  • The only thing that caused Hussein to eventually give in and cooperate fully with sanctions was the imminent threat of assured US military attack. Inspections would never have been sufficient in the context of a refusal on the part of congress to authorize force. Bush used force even after it appeared that the threat of force was sufficient, and for that he will always be culpable, but the AUMF vote was not the clear moral choice many of my compatriots seem to think it should have been, IMHO.
  • The administration was wildly inaccurate in its expectations about the war. I am extremely reluctant to justify or condemn actions based on outcomes that were uncertain at the time. For instance, just because you successfully draw to an inside straight doesn't mean you shouldn't have folded, and just because your opponent has a pair of aces in the hole doesn't mean you shouldn't have gone all in. I'm comfortable saying that the administration was wrong. That they were horribly irresponsible for not examining the range of possibilities and preparing for alternate scenarios. They should have considered that things might turn out the way they did, but I won't say that they should have known things would turn out the way they did. That's hindsight bias and its unfair no matter who you apply it to.
  • Perhaps people would not have supported the war had they known the toll it would take on our treasury and on our military personnel. Of course, no one ever gets to know these things in advance. If the argument from some folks on the left is that this war would have been supportable at a price of 100 billion and 1000 dead US soldiers, it certainly removes a lot of the moral force from the rest of the argument.
  • The consequences of leaving may be positive or negative, and a plausible story will be told in either case. Right now, the hypothesis that leaving will solve more problems than it causes is an open and testable one.
  • The probability of a stable and effective Iraqi government may indeed be low as long as the US military provides a crutch. The probability of a stable government in the absence of that crutch may be higher or lower. Once again, I could make a case either way.
  • Finally, although the sooner we get out, the fewer casualties and debts we should accumulate, I have a moral dilemma. The WMD bit was supposed to be for our interests, but we also promised a better life to Iraqi civilians. What we've given them is somewhere between 100000 and 1000000 premature deaths. For Abrahem and Amira on the street, telling them it's time to stand up and protect themselves seems to me just about as wrong as telling the Iraqi people that our invasion was strictly for their benefit. The American soldiers who have sacrificed life and limb... not to be callous or cavalier, but that sacrifice was voluntary, and we insult their bravery if we suggest otherwise. If we cannot save our soldiers and treasury without simultaneously holding a sincere belief that net bloodshed in the civilian population will decrease, we might be morally obligated to suck it up and take it until we can.

Five years in, and I haven't heard much of anything that sounds like the voice of reason. Baker/Hamilton had some real promise, but it got caught up in the jaws of "War Good" and "War Bad." War simply is what it is at this point. The war was a tragedy. The instability and violence accompanying the occupation following the war continues to be a tragedy. And make no mistake, I would like to see those who have supported this endeavor held accountable for the consequences. On the other hand, this merely puts them in a position where they have little to lose and much to gain by maintaining hope of some future positive outcome, no matter how slim. They also have nothing to gain and will lose either way following a withdrawal. The tragedy will continue as long as we insist on accountability, or until we have instantiated it at the ballot box. Unfortunately, it may well yet continue then.

This is why I don't protest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A More Perfect Campaign

Some of the chatter out there regarding Obama's speech today is that it will only play really well among white liberals. I can't offer any evidence that would disconfirm that, as I'm a white liberal. And I think it's an extremely impressive piece of writing.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Michigan Athletics- I Should Probably Keep My Mouth Shut...

The New York Times has a headline come across my reader... Not a shock, but upsetting nonetheless:

Michigan Athletes Steered to Easy Classes, Report Says

And then it gets worse...

The Ann Arbor News reported on Sunday that the psychology professor John Hagen taught at least 294 independent studies from the fall of 2004 to the fall of 2007, 251 of them taken by athletes. Such courses are generally one-on-one classes between the student and the professor for a subject not offered by the university.

Why am I not jeering and hooting along with all y'all?

Because of my Bachelor of Science in Psychology (High Distinction) from the University of Michigan. Yes, I said it. Go Blue. Moving on...

Like anybody who follows either education or athletics, I know that athletes get more assistance with their academic work than most other students, priority scheduling, on-demand tutoring, etc. Like many, I think that those things are actually not a problem, and don't begrudge the athletes those things which compensate for the lack of individual study time and lack of flexibility in scheduling necessitated by their participation in sports. Like many, however, I have also always suspected that the average athlete was not putting as much academic effort into their degree as the average non-athlete.

Included in that latter "many" is Jim Harbaugh, a former star athlete at Michigan and current coach of Stanford's football team. His point was about the General Studies major at U of M. He was spot on. Despite what was said by some in our administration, the BGS is looked upon as a second-class degree. Given the disappointing official response to those and similar allegations, I assumed a raging fire was beneath the latest smoke.

But actually, no.

I remember telling people about the single stupidest piece I had ever seen written by sportswriter. It was by Rob Oller in the Dispatch. Mr. Oller got it into his head that the U of M faculty would be offended by Mr. Harbaugh's statements, but that the winning-obsessed trustees would easily forgive-and-forget.

Mr. Oller must not have spent a lot of face time with his professors. Or with the thin-skinned non-alums (including many Regents - not Trustees, Regents - over the years) who choose to associate with U of M because of its reputation. It might surprise him to know that in this latest set of allegations at Michigan, the academics investigated first. Then, a disgruntled faculty member wanted more investigation, and got it. When both of these investigations turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, that faculty member cooperated with a media investigation. The kicker here is that the muck-raking included, in part, a quote from a former U of M employee that many athletes worked with Professor Hagen because there was little interest among other professors at Michigan. Rather than Oller's imagined "over my dead body..." I'm surprised that there wasn't a faculty petition to recruit Harbaugh even before Stanford upset USC.

My opinion of the current allegations is probably obvious by now. Although I tend to identify strongly with the individuals who initially raised these concerns, I've taken Independent Study credit in Psychology at U of M. I've never met Hagen, but I've met the "disgruntled" professor, and I've worked with one of the other profs quoted in the AA News article who corroborates the suspicious nature of Hagen's enrollment patterns. I met with him about as often as I met one-on-one with the Prof who was technically teaching my independent studies - 3 or 4 hours across two semesters. It wasn't because I was being neglected. I spent much more time interacting with the post-docs and grad students who were actually conducting the day-to-day operations of a research lab, which was certainly much more valuable in the long run than extra time shooting the breeze with the prof would have been. I should say that all of the faculty referred to here are extremely intelligent world-class scholars, who work very hard to maintain U of M's top Psychology reputation. I benefited immensely from my association with them. I'm just not sure that if you asked their students, off the record, about their class-related activities, that they would meet the level of specific standards being laid out in the allegations against Hagen. And I trust the University, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and the Department of Psychology who seem to be of a similar opinion.

It does, however, sound like I put more time in and had a more rigorous experience than some of the athletes in their classes. It also sounds like athletes took Independent Studies with Hagen in part because they knew they could get better grades with less effort than they could taking other classes. It even appears that some of the athletes' academic advisors were aware that their athletes tended to get good grades in Hagen's classes, and advised their students accordingly. If the intent is for these student-athletes to get the kind of research experience that will help them get into competitive grad programs in Psych (my reason for taking Independent Study), there is a major problem here. If the intent is to get through U of M using the path of least resistance, the athletes are unfortunately joining many of their non-athlete peers along the way.

There are three more installments of the Ann Arbor News 'expose', and the shocking disappointment may be yet to come. When the story is athletes like Harbaugh being steered away from classes they want into classes the coaching staff think will be the least distraction from 'more important' pursuits, we've got a real problem that needs to be addressed. When the story is about athletes figuring out what the easy courses are and passing them with minimal effort, just like their non-athletic classmates, it's almost like an innoculation against further charges.

And certainly a relief for one alum living in the middle of the community happiest to read about shocking disappointments up north.