"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Monday, April 25, 2016

How to say nothing in a lot of words

Here is Donald Trump's response to the news that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20-bill:
“Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it’s very rough when you take somebody off the bill. Andrew Jackson had a history of tremendous success for the country,” he said. “I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic. I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can maybe come up with another denomination, maybe we do the $2 bill or we do another bill.” He went on to call the change “pure political correctness.”
Forget whether the Treasury made the right decision -- it did. What I find do striking is Trump's non-specific language, which had been characteristic of his response to every issue:

Jackson had a "great history" and "tremendous success for our country." Tubman is "fantastic" too, but it's "rough" to remove someone from a bill (as if Jackson, dead 170 years, would notice). These are empty words -- a list of vague modifiers disconnected from the historical record or anything else that might be considered concrete.

In the end, Trump attributed it all to his favorite phrase, "political correctness," without bothering to say much of anything. This is the Trump way, of course, to rely on empty language ("we're going to win so much you'll get tired of winning") because he doesn't have much of an actual plan.

It allows him to be anything to anyone and nothing all at once. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Unacelike aces abound in 2016

Matt Harvey's very un-Dark Knight-like start has Mets' fans concerned -- but he's not the only elite pitcher struggling so far this year. Of the 117 pitchers who have thrown at least 15 innings this year, 31 have ERAs above 5.00. Of that 31, five are former Cy Young Award winners and three others have finished in the top-five in the vote within the last three years.

Here they are:

  • Zack Greinke, 1-2, 5.25 ERA
  • Matt Harvey, 0-3, 5.71 ERA
  • R.A. Dickey, 1-2, 6.10 ERA
  • Corey Kluber, 0-3, 6.16 ERA
  • David Price, 2-0, 7.06 ERA
  • Justin Verlander, 1-2, 7.16 ERA
  • Chris Archer, 0-4, 7.32 ERA
  • Adam Wainwright, 0-2, 8.27 ERA
There may be various reasons for this -- Ron Darling has wondered if Harvey pitched enough in spring training to get himself ready to start the season, while pitching coach Dan Warthen says there is a mechanical issue when he pitches from the stretch. I am sure that similar observations being made in Phoenix, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, etc.

Whatever the reasons, there are a lot of starters not living up to their billing as we move toward the end of April.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pro-trade bias is in the tone

The Washington Post offered a news analysis piece Mondaycritical of the varying "populist" movements around the globe. The story, on its face, may seem fairly even-handed, but it is another in a long list of economic stories biased toward an establishment, neo-liberal view of the world.

This comes primarily through its tone, which is built upon a set of word choices that divide the economic world between serious economists and irrational populists.

Consider this passage, which is pretty typical of the entire piece:
Economists have long argued that the benefits of globalization far outweigh the costs to workers who might be displaced by those half a world away.
Seems rather straightforward -- unless you do what I ask my students to do with everything they read: interrogate the text. Here, the use of the unqualified "economists" turns economists into a broad -- and by implication unified -- class. It is "economists" -- not "some economists, not many or a majority, but economists.

One might argue that I'm quibbling, that the reader should know that the writers doesn't mean all. But the point is that words matter. The words we choose, the decisions we make about how they are used, create the meanings we are intended to take from them. If the writer meant to indicate a broad swath of the profession he should have said that, rather than assuming that his unqualified use of a broad term would be easily understandable.

The issue with this story goes much deeper than just a single word choice. Consider the first two paragraphs:
The world economy is nearing what international policymakers fear could be a dangerous turning point, as populist uprisings in the United States and Europe threaten to unravel decades-old alliances that have fostered free trade and deepened economic ties. 
The tension has reached boiling point in Britain, which in two months will vote on whether to leave the European Union. The International Monetary Fund, which wrapped up its annual meetings this weekend in Washington, warned that a so-called Brexit is a “real possibility,” one that could usher in a new era of uncertainty and undermine the already fragile global recovery.
There is the use of the word "dangerous" in the lead, which is qualified -- attributed to "international economists -- but still implies that something perilous is in the offing. This danger is tied to words with negative connotations like "turning point," "uprisings," "unravel," "boiling point," and "usher in a new era of uncertainty and undermine the already fragile recovery." It paints a bleak picture and lays the paint brush at the feet of those pesky populists.

The organization of he story doesn't help. The story's critical voices -- neither of whom question free trade, ought they do remind us that we have not figured out how to assist those who lose out -- are buried at the end of the story, which undercuts efforts at balance. These critical voices are treated as afterthoughts, positioned after the more overtly free-trade economists have finished making their case.

To describe this as an imbalance is to be generous. Is kind of bias is not a surprise -- Dean Baker has been hammering the Post for years over its economic reporting, which has tended to be critical of progressive policy and very supportive of elite, insider economics -- i.e., calls to cut Social Security, to expand unfettered free trade, etc.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Dark start for Dark Knight

Three games into 2016 and Met fans -- myself included -- have watched in horror as Matt Harvey, the Dark Knight of Gotham, has proven all too mortal.

Here, via a screen shot from Baseball-Reference, are the pitching lines from his first three starts:

It's a very un-Harvey-like line, but other aces have gone through similar stretches. Check out these numbers from Clayton Kershaw's first three starts in 2015:

Kershaw's, of course, righted his ship -- after a while. After nine starts, Kershaw fell to 2-3 with a 4.32 earned run average, before running off a string of typical Kershaw outing and finishing 16-7 with a 2.13 ERA.

Kershaw is a special pitcher -- but so is Harvey. Does it mean the Dark Knight will rebound like Kershaw? No way to know -- and that's the point. It is too early to panic. 

Grassroots: Wrong Focus (or why local politics is important)

A new Progressive Populist column is available here.

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