Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Fall of the Nats

Three years ago, the Washington Nationals burst into prominence with a young team full of potential and an old-school manager full of swagger. The team, coming off years of sub-.500 records, broke out, winning a league-high 98 games with a pitching rotation loaded with young arms and burgeoning everyday talent. The team suffered a crushing Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, but most baseball people assumed it was a question of when, not if, the team would make it to the World Series. The team had a "window" when their young stars would still be under manageable contracts and Davey Johnson was a proven winner with a World Series ring and a no-fucks-to-give attitude that had him proudly proclaiming "world series or bust" when spring training opened the following February.

Flash forward to the depressing final days of the 2015 season and the question of a trip to the World Series is just the opposite - no longer a matter of when, but if. The team was passed by the Mets and will not even make the playoffs this year. How did we get here and what should the team do in order to contend in 2016 and beyond? The 2015 campaign began with sky high expectations. The Max Scherzer signing appeared to solidify one of, if not the deepest rotations in baseball. Bryce Harper was ready to fulfill his potential, and younger players like Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond were expected to continue playing at an all-star level. 

While it is fair to apportion some of the blame on factors outside anyone's control, injuries crushed the team from top to bottom - Denard Span, Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Doug Fister, and Stephen Strasburg all missed significant playing time - every team has to deal with injuries during the season and the team was still in first place at the All-Star break. No, the problem was not simply injuries, there were greater factors at work:

  • Trading For Papelbon: It is no coincidence that the Mets flew past the Nats around the trading deadline. While the Amazin's picked up utility players, relief pitching, and Yeonis Cespedes (admittedly, I don't think anyone expected him to do what he has done), the Nats sole move was taking on Papelbon's $13 million contract and demoting Drew Storen, who was having the best season of his career, to a setup role. Having questioned Storen's ability once before in signing Rafael Soriano before the 2013 season, it should not have been surprising that Storen imploded when the front office questioned his talent again. Sadly, Storen's old running mate, Tyler Clippard (who the Nats foolishly traded in the off-season) was available, but instead of bringing back a quality set-up man (a team need who landed with the Mets instead) and restoring some good clubhouse karma, Mike Rizzo brought in a cancer who has done nothing to help the team contend.
  • Matt Williams: Handing the keys to a Ferrari to a 16-year old is probably unwise unless the car is simply going in a straight line slowly, but let him out on the highway and bad things will happen. So it has been with Matt Williams. As long as he was not called upon to make difficult decisions, he was fine, but he was woefully out managed in the NLDS by Bruce Bochy and his poor handling of this year's pitching staff has been well documented. Simply put, he is out of his league, not experienced enough as a manager to make the types of choices a more seasoned skipper would make. Too bad we had one of those, but he was run out of town because he was too nice to players or something. 
  • Mike Rizzo: I hate to diss Rizzo, who I have written about favorably in the past, but for all the credit he gets for building a contender (and rightly so), he deserves scorn for more recent decisions, be it the aforementioned Soriano deal, trading away Clippard, failing to resign either Ian Desmond or Jordan Zimmermann (more on them later), or the head scratching signing of Scherzer when the team could have used that $210 million in other ways and to fill other needs, Rizzo's track record of late has not been good. The Papelbon trade is the kind of karmic kick in the balls anyone could have seen coming a mile away. 
  • The Lerners: For billionaires, the Lerner family has a frustrating penchant for being cheap and profligate without explanation. I will never understand why it was unwise to give Clippard $8 million for one year when he was the linchpin of the bullpen but ok to give Scherzer $210 million when he was past the age of 30 and a player (Zimmermann) two years younger and home grown, could have been re-signed for less money. 
  • Dissing Home Grown Talent: It sends an incredibly poor message when you spend big to bring in free agent talent but let home grown talent, particularly home grown talent that has been with the team for so long, walk out the door, as is likely to happen in the off-season when Desmond and Zimmermann will become free agents. This is a particularly unsettling trend as players like Strasburg, Harper, and Rendon become free agents in the next few years. 

So, what to do? 

  • Stephen Strasburg: Speaking of Strasburg … It is hard to know if the team has messed with his head between the innings limits, pitching to contact, and expectations, or if he simply is a diamond in need of additional polishing, but he is a free agent after next season and the team needs to figure out if they want to fish or cut bait (and get some decent pieces back for him in a trade). 
  • Get A Manager That Knows What The Fuck He Is Doing: Williams is only signed through next season, so eat what's left on his contract and get a manager in here that does not need on-the-job training.
  • Show Some Love To Your Own Players: Pull out the checkbook and resign Zimmermann and make a more concerted effort to show the players you have drafted or traded for early in their careers that being a part of the franchise means something. 
  • Make Trades: That said, dumping Werth on an AL team who could use his bat and have him DH part time and floating Gonzalez, who is still affordable at $9 million a year but clearly has maxed out his potential, makes sense. The Scherzer contract is going to be an albatross, might as well lighten the load in places where we can to free up money for other priorities. 
  • Drew Storen: The relationship with Storen is probably beyond repair at this point, but the fact is, he is still only 28 years old and was having an outstanding season until Papelbon was foolishly added to the bullpen. While baseball is a business, Storen is way too talented to give up on. 

This shit matters because the Mets, Cubs, and Pirates are all loaded with young talent, the Dodgers basically print money, and the Cardinals and Giants are only two of the best run franchises in all of Major League Baseball who between them have won four world series in the last 10 years. If the Nats don't take steps to improve, their window may have already closed. 

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Campaign About Nothing

Russell: What's the show about?
George: Nothing.
Russell: Then why am I watching it?
George: Because it's on TV. [1]

A quarter century after Seinfeld parodied itself, the Republican candidates for President have taken that iconic program to its logical conclusion - a reductio ad absurdum exercise in banality aided and abetted by a willing press corps more interested in acting performances, manufactured slap fights, and triviality than the important business of deciding who should be our nation's leader.

This bizarre incentive structure encourages over-the-top behavior to garner media attention. As was noted on (of all places) The McLaughlin Group, many of the questions posed in the second GOP debate were modeled on (of all things) The Real Housewives franchise, where one "housewife" says something mean about another "housewife" and then the latter is asked to comment on what the former said. Essentially, Jake Tapper acted as that smarmy kid in school who walks up to someone and says "you won't believe the shit so and so said about you" and then steps away to watch the fight.  

Further, because so much of the "reporting" that goes on these days focuses on the horse race aspect of the primary (that is, on polls, not policy), it is no wonder that a guy like Donald Trump spends most of what passes for his stump speeches patting himself on the back for leading in those polls. Polls = popularity = attention by the chattering class = more popularity = higher polls in a virtuous cycle that redounds to the benefit of whoever is riding the crest of that wave.

While the media has done its best to ridicule and mock Trump, demand policy prescriptions from him, and otherwise attempt to pierce his balloon, the dirty little secret they are reluctant to admit is that his popularity, along with that of Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and even Ted Cruz, reflects the true mainstream of Republican orthodoxy. The longer this goes on, the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway that the "adults in the room" - the Jeb Bushes or John Kasichs - will bubble to the surface once Republican primary voters get their wits about them, looks more and more foolish. 

Perhaps this is because the idea that policies matter is no longer applicable in a party that does not live in the (to borrow from a W-era apparatchik) "reality-based world." When a large portion of your party does not believe the President is a Christian or that the deficit has gone down on his watch not up, objective "truth" no longer matters. That insiders are stunned at Trump's rise is amusing if only because he espouses little more than the greatest hits from Fox News in the age of Obama - anchor babies, illegal immigration, repealing Obamacare, a weak foreign policy - while putting some New York attitude behind it. 

And even if policies did matter, the media is doing a lousy job reporting about them. Do not get me wrong, it is not like they provide no coverage of policy pronouncements, it is just that the proportion of that coverage is a fraction of the ink and airtime used on the latest dust-up or Trump insult. Examples abound, but to take just two, consider Jeb Bush's tax policy. It was announced about 2 weeks ago to almost no fanfare even though an analysis of it indicated that more than 53% of the benefits of his policy would benefit the top 1% of income earners. [2] What coverage was provided focused mainly on his willingness to scrap the so-called "carried interest" loophole, an idea championed by Democrats for years and recently supported by Donald Trump. Bush got a lot of credit in the media for including this idea, but the reality is that the loophole's closure would bring in less than $20 billion a year to the Treasury - less than 1% of the overall "cost" of Bush's plan - and his other giveaways to the wealthy would more than make up for this loss. In other words, Bush got credit for taking a penny away from the rich and no criticism for giving them a dollar in return. 

Similarly, Carly Fiorina was roundly praised for her performance at the second GOP debate. She was declared the winner because she seemed in control of the room and fluent in both foreign and domestic policy. Of course, a riff about the Sixth Fleet and increasing troops in Western Europe sounded impressive, and she spoke with great passion (but little accuracy) about Planned Parenthood, but within a day, four (!) falsehoods or misstatements she uttered in a scant 15 seconds were flagged. [3] Those errors, which once upon a time would have mattered - flat out lies used to mean something - were brushed aside because she was being judged not on the probity of what she said, but what it did for her, wait for it, poll numbers. She was, to use the media's preferred buzzword this cycle, "authentic," even if she was lying through her teeth.

In Matt Bai's outstanding book All The Truth Is Out he argues that the tabloidization of national media coverage began in 1988, when Gary Hart's campaign was taken down amid rumors of an extramarital affair and peaked during Bill Clinton's time in office. Since then, while sex still sells, caricaturing candidates has proven equally effective in belittling them - Al Gore was a phony, John Kerry was an effete flip-flopper, Mitt Romney, a soulless corporate takeover artist (ok, that last one was true) - while excusing the press from doing its job of questioning the ideas, not the motivations or personalities, of those they cover. If Jeb Bush's idea to privatize Medicare, Mike Huckabee's suggestion that the rule of law can be ignored, or Lindsey Graham's call for tens of thousands of troops in Iraq get a <shoulder shrug emoji> from the press because they are too busy dissecting Donald Trump's latest insult, why should they be surprised that candidates traffic in invective, the populace is so ill informed, and we blankly stare at the freak show on television?

That candidates are going to respond to the best ways to get attention is unsurprising - after all, they are politicians trying to get elected, but the media has abdicated its role as fact checker in favor of becoming carnival barkers because their incentive structure is no longer built on objectivity, but rather, on ratings, clicks, and page views.  

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1. The Pitch, Season 4, Episode 3.

2. On this, he has outdone his brother, who "only" handed over 40% of the benefits of his tax cuts to the 1%.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fuzzy Math II

Back in 2000, our country's financial picture was about as good as it could get. The budget was in surplus, unemployment was low, and the national debt was on pace to be paid off entirely by 2013. Al Gore and George W. Bush had very different ideas about what to do with this good fortune. Gore wanted to protect the surplus, reserve money for Social Security and continue paying down the national debt. Bush claimed the American people were entitled to a "refund" and called for massive tax cuts. Gore was mocked as a green-eye-shade fiscal scold and ridiculed for his idea to segregate the Social Security surplus in a "lockbox" that would no longer be tapped to pay for regular government business. Bush was largely given a pass by the media and those that raised a tepid concern were tsk tsked as engaging in "fuzzy math." 

Bush's tax cuts, along with two wars and a prescription drug benefit were all put on the government's credit card, increasing both the debt and annual budget deficit while the economic collapse in 2008 exploded both to levels never seen before. It has taken all of President Obama's time in office to bring the deficit under control, but the debt continues to increase because the interest on it accumulates faster than we can pay it down and the budget is still in deficit, requiring us to continue borrowing, just at a lower amount. 

Once Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2011, the term "offset" came into vogue. The idea behind the offset is that any new spending, no matter how insignificant, should be "offset" by a cut somewhere else in the budget so as not to increase either the deficit or debt. Of course, this is laughable coming from a party that spent trillions on tax cuts and wars while their own man was in the White House, but even small bore initiatives that most people agree would provide a significant return on investment - things like infrastructure spending, universal pre-kindergarten, and two years of free community college - go nowhere.

So it is interesting to see how little coverage Jeb Bus's tax policy, announced last week, has garnered. Here is a plan that by his own economist's admission would add $1.2 trillion over 10 years and, is estimated by economist's not being paid by the Bush campaign to cost $3.4 trillion over ten years. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those benefits will accrue to the wealthiest Americans while offering crumbs for the rest of us. If this all sounds familiar, it should. This was tried in 1981 under Ronald Reagan and again in 2001 and 2003 by George W. Bush. It did not work either time. And not only did it not work, but each time, our deficit and debt soared.

You would think this type of fiscal irresponsibility would cause howls from the deficit reduction crowd on Capitol Hill. That the Republicans who think a $66 billion investment over 10 years (that's $6.6 billion a year, or less than what was spent in one month in Iraq) so every child can attend pre-kindergarten and $60 billion over 10 years so all young people could attend two years of community college free of charge are just a profligate waste of money are silent about a tax cut plan that would add trillions to our debt. In fact, even using Bush's economist's own numbers, we could pay for 100 years of pre-k and community college for the ten year cost of Bush's giveaway to the richest Americans who already own so much of our nation's wealth.

While there has been some media coverage along the margins, like many things in politics, the problem is in the proportionality of that coverage. Sure, some dork at did a deep dive to discover, spoiler alert, that the rich would make out really well under Bush's plan, but the Beltway media is hurtling itself at Bush's feet because he wants to eliminate the so-called "carried interest" loophole without mentioning that would only generate $1.8 billion a year, or less than 1% of the yearly cost of his overall plan. 

Unfortunately, we have seen this movie before. The media, which claims it wants substantive policy discussion, will totally ignore the Bush tax plan (it received no coverage on the Sunday talk shows and what coverage it may get in the next few days will pale in comparison to anything Donald Trump tweets or the results of the latest poll) and, in the increasingly unlikely event Bush gets the nomination, will devolve into a "one side claims this, the other side claims that" neutrality that will ignore the reality of prior experiments in massive tax cuts for the wealthy. If the old axiom is "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," who do we blame if we are fooled a third time?

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Saturday, September 5, 2015

What Ifs Of Presidential History

If you are like me and find history fascinating, you have undoubtedly thought about how history would be different if something did or did not happen. "Alternate history" has become a burgeoning genre that speculates about everything from what would have happened if the South won the Civil War to how John F. Kennedy would have led our country had he escaped an assassin's bullet in Dallas. 

Although picking historical events to play the "what if" game are endless, speculating about Presidential events is particularly interesting because of the singular role that office plays in influencing our country. So, consider how history would have changed if the following things turned out differently:

George Washington And Presidential Third Terms. As our nation marked 20 years of independence and was still getting accustomed to a Constitution that had been ratified just eight years earlier, George Washington opted against running for a third term as President. There was no legal prohibition at the time (that would not occur until 1951) but by stepping aside, Washington sent a clear message that Presidents should not be monarchs - an unwritten rule that would be followed for more than 130 years. 

Had Washington run again, he almost certainly would have been re-elected (he won re-election in 1792 by unanimous acclaim in the Electoral College), and, potentially, died in office, which would have put the question of Presidential succession foursquare in the body politic 40+ years before it would actually happen (William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841) and also opened the way for two-term presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, U.S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt (not technically elected twice, but more on that later) to consider another term in office, creating their own ripples in our historical pond.

How Was That Play, Mrs. Lincoln? There is no greater "what if" to ponder than what would have happened had President and Mrs. Lincoln taken a pass on going to Ford's Theater on the evening of April 14th, 1865. Lincoln's death and succession by Vice President Andrew Johnson just days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House forever changed our nation. Johnson's tone deaf politics and general incompetence ensured that the transition to Reconstruction was unwieldy and his term of office is notable largely for the fact that he barely escaped conviction and removal from office in the U.S. Senate after being impeached by the House of Representatives. 

There are two other "what ifs" surrounding Lincoln - first, how history would have changed had he not replaced his first-term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, with Johnson and second, what would have happened had the three-headed plot of assassination on the night of April 14th - of Lincoln, Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward  - been totally successful. Seward was not in the line of succession regardless, so the United States would have welcomed President Lafayette Foster, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, who would have served for about six months before a new election was held. At that point, who knows what would have happened.

Tilden Wins In 1876. 124 years before hanging chads decided the 2000 election (more on that later), Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden ran a neck-and-neck race for the Presidency that was essentially decided in a back room deal whereby Hayes promised to remove troops from the South, effectively ending the Reconstruction Era and heralding almost 80 years of Jim Crow segregation. Let that one soak in.

McKinley Dodges A Bullet: Just six months into his second term as President, William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, could not have been more different than the deceased leader. Whereas McKinley was largely a tool of corporate interests, Roosevelt aggressively went after corporate trusts, protected hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Had McKinley survived the assassin's bullet, Roosevelt's hard charging style and trust-busting ways may have never seen the light of day. Of course, Roosevelt's place on McKinley's ticket in 1900 was also a quirk of history. McKinley's first-term Vice President, Garret Hobart, with whom McKinley was quite close, died in office in late 1899. 

TR Wins A Third Term: Since he ascended to the Presidency due to McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt technically could have honored Washington's "no three term" pledge and run for re-election in 1908 because he had only been elected President once (in 1904); however, Roosevelt opted against this move, hand picking William Howard Taft, his Secretary of War, to succeed him. 

Taft won the 1908 election but disappointed Roosevelt, leading the former President to make another run for the White House in 1912. When his own party snubbed him, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate, receiving more votes than Taft, but losing badly to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. However, Taft and Roosevelt combined to receive a million more votes than Wilson (a huge amount when you consider that only 15 million total votes were cast), suggesting that had Republicans simply handed the nomination to their former standard bearer, he would have been returned to office. Roosevelt's deep militarism likely would have led our country into World War I much earlier, and, potentially, made that bloody war shorter. 

FDR Does Not Make It To His Inauguration: As the country spiraled down into the depths of the Great Depression and two short weeks before the eagerly anticipated inauguration of President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, an assassin narrowly missed altering the course of history. Just after delivering a speech in Miami, Roosevelt and others were fired upon by an unemployed bricklayer named Giuseppe Zangara. Zangara, standing a mere five feet tall, stood on a wobbly chair and took aim; however, he missed Roosevelt, but struck several others, including the Mayor of Chicago, who was mortally wounded. 

It is an open question whether Vice President-Elect John Nance Garner would have become President, but regardless of whether Nance or someone else ascended to the Presidency, neither the New Deal as we know it nor the regulatory state that arose in the wake of the Supreme Court's decisions upholding key elements of the New Deal would have happened. Wow. 

FDR Takes A Bow In 1940. There's that whole "third term" thing again. FDR, breaking with unofficial precedent, ran for a third term in 1940, largely due to his view that his leadership was needed to contend with the uncertainty of World War II and the nation's ongoing recovery from the Great Depression. FDR did not win the Democratic nomination without a fight, other candidates, including his own Vice President and Secretary of State, as well as a U.S. Senator threw their hats into the ring. Had FDR not been nominated, the Democrats would have contended with affable Republican Wendell Willkie, who ended up losing to FDR by 10 percentage points. 

Roosevelt's third term was particularly eventful what with the Pearl Harbor attack, D-Day invasion and development of the atomic bomb. How history would have been altered if a President Garner, Hull, or Willkie was sitting in the Oval Office during these consequential years is impossible to fathom.

President Henry Wallace. While campaigning for an unprecedented fourth term, FDR sent word to the convention nominating him that he would not oppose the removal of his liberal Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket. The convention obliged, tapping obscure Missouri Senator Harry Truman to replace him. Roosevelt's death in April 1945 elevated Truman to the White House. 

While serving the remainder of FDR's term, Truman made the call to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and create the Marshall Plan. Whether Wallace would have made these same decisions is unknown, but they are not small things. The option of dropping a bomb that would kill 75,000 civilians in an instant versus invading Japan with a force of more than one million troops or funding the reconstruction of Europe at enormous cost to American taxpayers were enormously consequential.

One place where Wallace's more liberal politics would have unquestionably been felt is in the selection of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Truman picked a crony, Fred Vinson, whose death in 1953 led to the nomination of Earl Warren and the ushering in of the most progressive period in the Court's history. Had a President Wallace appointed someone else, it is possible Warren never gets to be Chief Justice and the entire civil rights era looks much different. 

JFK, Not LBJ. Had Kennedy never visited Texas or survived the assassination attempt that took his life, LBJ's place in history would have largely been erased. From the Vietnam War to the creation of Medicare and the passing of things like the Voting Rights Act, this is one of the great "what ifs" of history. It is widely assumed Kennedy would not have escalated our involvement in Vietnam, but at the same time, the civil rights laws passed after his death occurred largely because of LBJ's indomitable spirit and unsurpassed legislative skills. Would Kennedy have lobbied as aggressively for their passage? We will never know. 

Tragedy at the Washington Hilton. When John Hinckley tried to murder President Ronald Reagan on March 30th, 1981, he easily could have changed the face of modern American history. In fact, Hinckley came within an inch or two of accomplishing his twisted mission. As others have chronicled, had the caliber of the bullet been greater (Hinckley used a .22), lodged an inch or two higher in the President's chest (Reagan was in shock when arrived at the hospital and lost a considerable amount of blood during surgery), or his arrival at the hospital been delayed by just a few minutes, Reagan may not have survived, elevating George H.W. Bush to the Presidency less than three months into Reagan's initial term of office. The what ifs of that are dizzying, but it is entirely possible the world never hears of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. 

Florida. Just utter this word to any Democrat and no more needs to be said. No war in Iraq. No budget busting tax cuts for the wealthy. No use of terrorism as a cudgel against political opponents. Maybe even no 9/11. Not only had the Clinton Administration broken up a terrorist plot timed for New Year's 2000, but a Gore Administration likely would have retained many of the people who had warned (to no avail) the incoming Bushies about the threat Bin Laden posed. Different ballot, different judges, more careful voting by retired Jewish grandparents in Palm Beach County (Gore won the county 62/35 but Pat Buchanan's 3,411 votes tripled his haul in any other county in the state - no small thing considering Bush "won" by 537 votes), no Ralph Nader, or per-curium-this-decision-has-no-precedential-value opinion of the Supreme Court and our nation looks so much different today.

So that was fun. What are some of your "what if" scenarios?

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