Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NBA Woes

I've gotten to the point that I hardly ever watch NBA basketball anymore. But it's the playoffs, so I'm semi-interested (and my son watches every minute he can). It is truly painful to see how far the game has fallen off since the glory days of the Dream Team.

Case in point--shooting. NOBODY CAN SHOOT THE STUPID BALL ANYMORE! I pulled up nba.com and looked up shooting percentage leaders to see if my perception was true or if I'm just turning into a grump old man. If you scan down the list, the first guy you come to who shoots half-decent and is not a bench warmer or role player is Dwight Howard, at 54%. Shortly behind him is Yao Ming, at 52%. Are you kidding me? These are not guys who are jacking up threes. They are centers! Kevin McHale shot 60% from the floor (and 80% from the line) in consecutive years. Charles Barkley made over 58% of his shots from 2-point range (and he took LOTS of jumpers). The '87 Lakers (who I hate with a passion, but you've gotta admire the skills) shot better than Yao as a team.

Same thing with assists. I remember complaining 25 years ago how the east coast refs were much tighter with assists than they were in the west. Seems like Bird or Isaiah could never get the credit that Magic or Stockton could for a nice pass. But now? Even those west coast "showtime" refs would be embarassed at the way they count them. If you compare stats from then and now, it's almost like trying to look at pre-steroid baseball cards.

Ditto the three-point shot. The three-pointer came into the NBA with Magic and Bird in 1980. Bird was the first player to ever make one in the all-star game. It was about '87 when college adopted the line. When I graduated high school, there was still no 3-pointer, and if you jacked up a 20-footer, it had better go in, or your butt was headed to the bench for a while. The long ball may have added to scoring totals and made for better comebacks, but it sure hasn't made the game any prettier. Does anybody over the age of 35 remember that time when Michael Jordan came down the court, waved off the other 4 guys on his team, and launched a 24-foot bomb? No? That's because it never happened. The one who does that is Kobe Bryant. MJ passed the ball, came off of screens, and took good shots. Today's superstars jack up treys with no conscience. Nowadays, all they do is pass into a big man on the block (who barely makes half of his shots), and then he kicks it out for a three. They repeat this until the shot clock winds down. BO-RING. When the three-pointer was new, it was rarely used. Larry Bird, who won three consecutive 3-point shootouts, made only 0.7 threes a game. Compare that to Lebron James, who has already made more threes than Bird did in his entire career.

And let's talk about Lebron. There's no doubt that he is the best player on the planet right now. And he's good--an athletic wunderkind. How does he stack up to the greats of yesteryear? Well, let's compare him to Larry Bird, who played the same position. Lebron does score about 3 points more per game (almost entirely due to the fact that he takes more shots, including the above-mentioned 3-pointers). Bird averaged more rebounds. They are almost equal in assists, but assists are a lot easier to come by these days. Bird shoots significantly better from every range: two-point, three-point, and foul shots. But most importantly, Lebron is in his 7th year in the league. He just won his first MVP, and, if (and it's looking like a BIG if) he can get past Orlando and then the Lakers, he has a chance to win his first title. By Bird's 7th year, he had three MVP awards and three championships. Lebron is a big fish in a very small, brackish pond. Compare Kobe to Jordan. ROFL. Compare Dwight Howard to Kareem. Or to Ewing. Or to Akeem. Even to a pre-geritol Shaq. ROFLMAO.

So, I'm waiting to see who wins the NBA (No Basics Association) title this year. But it's not the same. Not by far.

Justice Sotomayor

Well, it's official. President Obama has made his first Supreme Court pick. The winner is (drum roll....) Sonia Sotomayor, who will be the first Hispanic justice (and third female). As should be expected from a liberal president, she promises to be a liberal justice. Therefore, as a conservative, I guess I should register pro forma disapproval. However, she replaces a member of the liberal bloc on the court, so except for the fact that she's younger, nothing really will change, balance-wise. Moreover, she has been an appeals court judge for a good while (and was approved in that appointment by a Republican-controlled senate), and was originally appointed to the bench by Bush 41 (as part of a deal that basically gave the pick to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan). She was top of her class at Princeton and Yale, after rising from poverty in the South Bronx. And of course, there's the reality of math--if Democrats hang together, they should be able to get Donald Duck confirmed if they want to, and he doesn't even wear pants! (Of course, Donald is both white and male, so he was never considered.)

There is already talk among some conservatives that she ought to be vigorously opposed, for a variety of reasons. One is that Obama made a big deal out of "empathy" as being key to his pick, which sticks in the craw of those of us who still feel like justice should be blind. Others cite her relatively high reversal rate on the appellate bench as evidence of a willingness to attempt to legislate from the bench, and further point to the fact that she was caught on tape once saying that "courts are where policy is made." Others are quick to jump on an article written in the liberal New Republic a while back in which Jeffrey Rosen hinted that she was not an intellectual heavyweight of the caliber of a Scalia or Roberts.

None of these are the real reason why Republicans want to oppose her, though. The real reason is that they are sick and tired of the double-standard that allowed Robert Bork to get crucified back in '87, Clarence Thomas' character to be assassinated under Bush 41, and most recently, for large numbers of Democrats to vote not to confirm the obviously-well-qualified Roberts and Alito (indeed, then-Senator Obama was anti-Alito to the point of considering a filibuster). They ask, and not unreasonably, "if these are the new rules, aren't they the same for both sides?" Why should the right always be bound by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules while the left fights like an episode of MMA on Spike TV late-night?

Well, I feel that pain. I really do. And there would be a certain satisfaction factor to dishing out what we've been taking. But there's game theory at work here. This fight is unwinnable, both in terms of the votes and also on the politics. Fighting Sotomayor with the "Alito Standard" would be spun by the media as anti-woman and anti-Hispanic. Better to keep the powder dry and point back to the bipartisan, smooth, cordial treatment given her when the timing is better, or a pick really does have a chance to change the balance of the court.

All that said, I am deeply conflicted over the divide between good, even "Christian" behavior towards ideological foes and good politics. My heart wants to extend far more courtesy to our current president than George W. Bush ever got. I want to take the high road, whether on judicial confirmations, culture issues, or whatever. I don't want to stoop to the level of playing dirty. But my gut says what someone (maybe Bear Bryant) once said about SEC football: "if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." One need only look at the assaults on Carrie Prejean, Sarah Palin, Joe the Pumber, or even Justices Roberts and Alito (not to even mention George W. Bush), to realize that there's plenty of dirty pool going on. I'm not sure that it's in the best interest of the nation for the right to roll over and die rather than sully our hands.

Last night (Memorial Day) I had the opportunity to watch the great 1941 movie Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. Alvin York was a devout Christian (a member of the Church of Christ) from Tennessee. He pleaded not to be drafted into WWI because he did not want to kill. He was turned down because his church had no written creed that forbade war. But when he found his men penned in by machine gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he decided that the only way to save hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives, was for him to do that which he abhorred, and take lives himself. York was one of those Tennessee sharpshooters who could handle a rifle from the time he could walk. He picked off 20 or more men before 132 Germans surrendered. York won the Congressional Medal of Honor and is one of the USA's greatest heroes. Don't get me wrong--I'm not suggesting that politics is the equivalent of physical war, and I'm not advocating a slide to the lowest common denominator. I'm also not saying that the end justifies the means. But we have to ask ourselves, in many cases, what are the consequences of our actions, and also of our inaction. In the case of this nomination, there is minimal up-side potential to resistance, and serious down-side. But that may not always be the case.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude

One of the best things about life as a teacher (and especially as a coach) is that my world is seasonal. Some people progress from winter, to spring, to summer, to fall, and then back to winter. My year begins in the fall with cross-country and football season, progresses to basketball in the winter, and reaches fever pitch in spring with track season. But then comes summer, which is not only a time between academic classes, but also an "off season." It's also pre-season cross-country, a time when my XC-track athletes transition into easy running of base miles that will form the foundation of their fall workouts and racing.

The best thing about a new season is a fresh start. This summer represents a time like that. Lately, I haven't been making a plan, checking items off of my to-do list, or managing my goals. I've just been muddling through, hanging on for dear life. But as of this past week, "the hay's in the barn." That's a line stolen from Mark Wetmore, one of the best coaches in America, and it's what he tells his team when the work is all done and all that remains is to see the results. This next week I have to give exams, grade them, and do report cards. So I can't truly say that the work is all done. But the teaching is over. The exams are written, copied, and ready to hand out. The desk is cleared off, and the in-box is empty. The uniforms from this past season are stowed where they belong. The pressure is off.

That means a new set of challenges, but a different rhythym of life for the next 12 weeks. I've already begun my own summer mileage build-up, running with the team (just slower and shorter). I'm re-reading my favorite book on time management and goal-setting, Time Power, and tomorrow I'll spend some time updating my DayTimer. There will be projects--LOTS of projects--that will get much-deserved attention. I've got a list of books to read (hopefully some of them on a beach or by a pool). We'll spend family time together, from a vacation week in Florida to time doing yard work. And then this summer season will come to its natural end, and I'll be energized and ready to tackle yet another fall. It's going to be an exciting fall--my middle child will be in my class, our cross-country team should start the season ranked #1 in our league, and our football team begins a new era under a new coach, with lots of excitement. But all of that is off in the future. I'm excited about this season now. And that's as it should be.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Far Worse Than Gay Marriage

I wrote earlier my reasons for opposing "Gay Marriage," most notably the effects it has on innocent children by weakening the traditional family model. But there is a far, far bigger problem out here in hetero-land. Word recently came out that the illegitimacy rate in the USA has climbed to 40%. This is amazing, and not in a good way. It was more than 40 years ago when Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Hillary Clinton's predecessor in NY) pointed out (correctly) that illegitimacy among the African-American community was reaching a terrible social tipping point. Then, the rate in that demographic was 25% (now it's over 70%). Just add this to my ever-growing list of signs that our society is going to hell in a handbasket.

This article by Charles Murray analyzes the rate of births to unwed mothers among white women of the previous generation (just to take the distracting factor of race out of the equation). What Murray found (then, when things were not as bad as now!) was that among educated and affluent women, having a husband precedes having a baby. But among the poor, and increasingly among working-class and even middle-class women, that model is terribly broken. Back when I started blogging, my first few posts were about poverty and its causes. One of the things I said back then that remains true today is that finishing high school, putting off marriage until after the teen years, and not reproducing while unmarried are the three-prong recipe for avoiding a life below the poverty line. It seems like a vicious cycle--a collapse of the basic family unit leads to more poverty, which in turn further undermines families.

Murray was also the author of a controversial book a few years ago called The Bell Curve. He took a lot of heat for his analysis of nature and nurture in intelligence (full disclosure--I haven't read it, just a few articles pro and con). One of the things he said that was very un-PC was that smart people tend to hang out with smart people, and therefore marry and have kids with them, creating little smart people. And that less-smart people do the same, in reverse (and they do it in greater numbers). If you accept that thesis, what you've got is my kids growing up in a home with pretty much 1950s family values, and they'll likely go to college and marry someone similar, before they have babies, and they'll keep on occupying a middle or upper rung on the ladder of social success. But more and more folks lower down the ladder don't have a father, don't know anybody with a father, and will have kids who also don't have concept of the role of a father. The social consequences of fatherlessness are severe, and pretty soon the whole ladder is structurally unsound.

Those of us (and I'm pointing at myself here) who call ourselves pro-family should not be ONLY anti-gay-marriage. We need to also be aware of the dangers of divorce and fatherlessness, and do what we can, if not to reverse the course of our decline, at least to slow it down.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Conservative Principles

William F. Buckley once famously described conservatism as "standing athwart history, hollering, 'Stop!'" And there is certainly an element of truth to that. One of the jokes I frequently tell is, "I'm a conservative... there have been many changes in my lifetime, and I've been against ALL of them!" But it's only a joke. Part of the definition of conservatism is dependent upon what you are trying to conserve. A conservative in Russia may pine for the days of the old USSR, or even the Romanov dynasty. But a 21st-century American conservative would not (I'll leave alone the too-easy joke about a modern liberal's pining for communism). In my mind, what I would like to conserve includes many ideas once thought liberal. This includes not only "classical liberalism," but also the "progressive" innovations of the era of Theodore Roosevelt, some (but not all) of the New Deal of Teddy's cousin, Franklin, and the advances in race relations achieved during and after the 1960s. Reagan voted multiple times for FDR, and famously said of the Democrats, "I didn't leave the party, the party left me." And I have said many, many times that I would vote for Harry S Truman in a heartbeat.

However, I do wish that someone (anyone?) was hollering "stop!" a little louder at the direction I perceive our country to be going right now (and not just since the last election, either). I have written before that England is no longer the England she used to be. I would further say that most if not all of western Europe is far removed from the "western Christendom" that I believe gave us the greatest civilization in world history. And I worry that America is following that same path.

I rarely link to an article when I blog (under the assumption that nobody would read it anyway). But I'm making an exception. This item is a commencement speech given by Mark Steyn that may be one of the best answers to the question of why I am a conservative. It's not that long--I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hopes and Fears About Health Care Reform

Major change is coming to health insurance in America, like it or not. The Obama administration has set that as a major priority, and they have the votes to do it. This may come as a shock to those of you who think of me as your token "right-wing friend," but I'm not entirely against the idea. The thing is, if we had a choice between a free-market system and the statist system we're likely going to get, I'd pick free-market every time. But what we've got right now is NOT free-market. The current system is so badly broken that change is inevitable. I just hope the change we get is an improvement.

The critics of the current system like to act like the biggest problem with our current system is the 47 million currently "without health care." I prefer the word "uninsured," as pretty much anybody can get care at free clinics and emergency rooms across the country. My own father was one of those 47 million a few years ago between the time he started receiving social security disability in excess of the limit for Medicaid, and before he had been in the system long enough to get Medicare. During that time, he spent 100+ days in Intensive Care and received emergency care worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He's never paid a dime of it. And that 47 million number is badly inflated, too. Some are illegal immigrants. Some are people who actually qualify for anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and SCHIP but don't sign up (and if they do go to a hospital, they get signed up then). Some are between jobs. And a significant number are people who make enough money that they could afford a health insurance policy if they chose to sacrifice some other portion of their lifestyle (but they know they can do the same thing my Dad did if there is an emergency, and they'd rather have the money). I have read estimates that say that once all these folks are taken out of the inflated count, there are more like 10-15 million uninsured currently slipping through the cracks. If that was your only problem, you could devise a program within the current system that would fix their situation without a massive overhaul.

The biggest problem with the current system (at least as I see it), is that the costs of health insurance are just too darned high. For my family, my employer spends almost $400 a month apiece for my wife and me to have individual policies. I pay an additional $400 to cover my kids. That means that just my portion is more than a decent car payment, and the total (if I had to cover it all myself) is more than my mortgage. And in the event that we do have a claim, I still can shell out thousands in copays and deductibles. (This is an improvement, by the way--before Ann got a job with benefits, I had close to $700 a month going out in premiums--over $8000 a year if I was lucky enough to stay healthy) Moreover, every December we have a staff meeting to find out that our coverage is going down and our premiums are going up... a lot faster than our salaries. No wonder many healthy single people choose to keep the money and take their chances.

Therefore, I would welcome any change that holds down prices, and I don't even mind a mandate that everybody is required to enroll. Were it up to me, I'd have a payroll tax like we do for Social Security, so nobody gets off entirely free of charge. We could even work it in a similar way to the Social Security tax, with employers paying half of the tax. Middle-class folks like me would likely see our premiums stay similar. Employers may even see their costs drop somewhat (which should free them up to pay me more in actual salary, which I can use to pay premiums). The poor would pay little or nothing, and the rich would pay more--but nobody would have the option of sticking me with their bill and buying a new car while I drive a '95 minivan with no heat.

If that would do the trick, I'd be fine. However, I do have some worries. The old line is true--whoever pays the piper gets to call the tune. Right now the big insurers pay the piper. And they stink. They will try almost anything to avoid paying the bills. When and if the federal government becomes the payer, it will become some cubicle-dweller in DC's jobs to hold down costs. And the way you hold down costs is by saying "no." If you look at the bureaucratic nightmare that Medicare is for doctors and hospitals now, just imagine how it will be when those jokers run everything. My biggest worry is what single-payer systems look like in England and Canada, where care is rationed. There are plenty of Canadians who avoid the long waits of their national system by coming to the USA and paying cash. Once we are single-payer, where are Americans supposed to go if the system is unresponsive? New Zealand? I also worry about the quality of care going down. There are already doctors who are getting out of the medical field because the money and prestige are going down and the hassle is going up. I don't see more government involvement doing anything to slow down that trend.

My biggest worry, though, is about the American people. I support a national health insurance program. And I am willing to pay a fair price for it, even if that price is the same as what I pay now (I'm assuming that I'm not quite "rich" enough to be subsidizing those who pay less at any rate greater than I'm paying to carry freeloaders now). But way too many of my fellow citizens have been thinking for a long time that somebody is going to give them "free health care." We already live in a country where almost half of workers pay no income tax. Once we open the door to goverment-provided insurance, it's easy for people to demand more and more service for less and less (or at least steady) payments. This ignores the very real economic fact of costs. Somebody has to pay for all of this, and politicians don't like math problems like that. As Maggie Thatcher famously said, "the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of somebody else's money." You could tax every dime of every millionaire's salary in the country at a 100% rate and couldn't raise enough revenue to support the rest of us. So make it fair. But bring it on.

Advice for the Republican Party

Seems like everybody and their cousin has advice for the Republicans these days. Time magazine's cover this week shows the famous GOP elephant with the caption, "endangered species." Bloggers, pundits, and congressmen all are falling over themselves pronouncing doom for the party and prescribing numerous remedies, most of which involve abandoning various positions which conservatives have traditionally held. Most of this is based on the premise that these ideas are old, discredited, and the proximate cause for recent electoral failures--failures which include, but are not limited to, the loss of congress in '06, the election of Barack Obama this past year, and now the defection of Arlen Specter to the Democrats (which, assuming the eventual seating of Al Franken in the Senate from Minnessota, means the Dems have 60 votes, and can pass any bill they want with zero chance of filibuster). Well, I'm joining in. Here's my advice:

First of all, RELAX. Read a history book sometime, for starters. US Politics is cyclical. There have been many, many times when a party (both of them) has been pronounced dead and buried. I think I recall an article or two about the collapse of the Democrats after Bush beat Kerry in '04. And then they come back... almost every time. Look at the drubbing the Republicans took starting in '74 with Watergate. They couldn't win a race for dog-catcher. And the rise of Jimmy Carter was the next big thing. Just one election later, the Reagan Revolution (more on St. Ron later). And it works both ways. After 12 years of Reagan and Bush 41, even Bill Clinton said, "the era of big government is over." Compare that pronouncement with today's budget and see if his prediction held true. It is liberalism's turn, and when their turn is up, the cycles will continue as they have before.

Secondly, the beating Republicans have taken of late are not so bad. Let's be clear--after 2+ solid years of an unpopular war, while led by one of the least-popular presidents in modern history, in the midst of the worst economic meltdown in a generation, and while running a candidate who was Bob Dole minus the charm, against one of the most charismatic campaigners of all time, assisted by a fawning media and a chance for centuries-old racial redemption, the Republicans lost the last election by 53-46%. That's not quite as bad as Bush's dad beat Dukakis. It's nothing like the hurt LBJ put on Goldwater, or that FDR put on Hoover. Shucks, in my class we don't even breathe the word "landslide" until you're well over 56%. And even if you DO win a landslide, that doesn't mean it will last--Hoover, Harding, and Nixon all won big ones, and fell from grace quicker than they rose. Shucks, by some counts, McCain was even or slightly ahead until the economy fell off the cliff!

Third, how can anybody say with a straight face that the GOP's problem lately has been that they have been TOO CONSERVATIVE? To say that Bush and the current Republicans in congress spent (and borrowed) like drunken sailors is an insult to navies full of them. They picked the absolutely least conservative figure in their primary field to run against Obama. Specter may have said that the party's march to the right was the cause of his defection, but PLEASE. The guy's a hack, who switched TO the Republicans back in '66 to win an election, and switched back now for the same reason. And the party he bolted spent tons of money in his last election to defend him against a more-conservative challenger. Consider the source.

So, what to do? Start with the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Don't freak out and make wholesale changes, throwing babies out with bath water. Secondly, don't think that becoming "Democrat-lite" helps anything. If the argument is over which statist party will spend the most and trade the most cradle-to-grave cocooning for your freedoms, the GOP cannot win that bidding war. Remember poor, desperate, failed, Barry Goldwater: he said "a choice, not an echo," and "in your heart, you know he's right." Well, 61% of American's did NOT know he was right in 1964. But 16 years later, those same principles swept Reagan into office. If the ideas are right, the country will realize it in due time. If they are not right, no amount of game theory will make them so.

Finally, a word about Reagan. Conservatives and Republicans (who are often not the same people) like to say that we need a "new Reagan." That is true, to a point--we need an articulate, charismatic, optimistic spokesman for our ideals. As the old adage goes, you can't beat somethin' with nothin', and in the age of Obama, image is as important as it has ever been. But we need to be careful not to think that emulating Reagan's policies is the answer. The Cold War is over (thank God!). Tax rates are no longer at 70%. Inflation is non-existent (for now, at least). There are different issues now, and the "next Reagan" needs to be able to deal with them--immigration, health care, entitlement reform, terrorism. You can apply Reaganesque principles to these issues, but the trick is to apply them in 21st-century ways.

I know, I have not even begun to articulate what conservative principles are (or should be). Maybe I will later. Or I may write about health care. But right now I'm going to go make a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Good Day at the Office

Today was the state track meet. I'm exhausted, sunburned, and exhilarated. This has been one of the most challenging seasons of my coaching career, as my team is very, very young. When a good freshman races a good senior, the senior usually wins. There is a ton of potential among the athletes on this year's team, but we have just not had the top-end scoring punch to place well as a team. It has been necessary to adjust my sights and set more "moral victory" goals. And it certainly is good to help kids achieve personal bests, or to see a young athlete qualify for the state meet, even if that athlete is not in a position to score. But it's also hard to stay "up" when you're not winning.

Today, though, it all came together. My team peaked at just the right time, setting 23 personal-best marks. They also greatly exceeded expectations. That's one thing about a track meet--they seed you based on your previous times, so you know going in if you are the best, or third-best, or thirteenth-best, in your event. Based on our seedings, my boys should have scored 17 points and my girls 29. The boys wound up with 26 and the girls 47! This wound up being a 6th place finish for both (which is about what we expected). But when everybody does their very best job ever, it's easy to be happy.

Best of all, we had a couple of genuine WINS on the day. A sophomore girl who had never triple jumped further than 32'8" in her life uncorked a 34'2" effort on her last attempt and won gold. And my girls' 4x100 relay team, led by a senior captain who has been on this same relay since 7th grade, not only came from behind to win a state title, they also broke a school record from 8 years ago that I had thought was going to stand forever. Relays are my favorite events--when you win, 4 kids get to share the medals. And they require discipline, teamwork, and trust. Being part of their celebration today made me happy I decided against law school almost 20 years ago!