Monday, November 29, 2010

Polsby's 2nd Law, Spies, Diplomats, the Braves, Etc.

(A bit of a catch-all Monday post, including both baseball and politics content.  Additional warning: it's a rambling post, so the good stuff, such as it is, is mixed in with a bunch of asides.  Exercise for the reader to determine which is which.  At any rate, first paragraph is baseball-only, so skip down a bit if you're not interested.)

Rob Neyer was kind enough to link to my latest Friday Baseball Post, in which I argued that the Braves great run was caused by their willingness to jettison players.  I attributed that strategy to Bill James, but Neyer points to Branch Rickey.  I think we're talking about two slightly different things, although I'm pretty sure it's my fault in how I wrote the original item.  Rickey's rule of thumb, as I remember it, is that it's better to get rid of a player a year too early rather than a year to late.  The Bill James point I'm remembering is that winning teams tend to stand pat, even keeping the bad players because after all they were good enough to contribute to a winner.   Overlapping, but two somewhat different points.

Which brings to mind Polsby's Second Law: Famous Words Migrate Into Famous Mouths. 

It also reminds me that this (the James thing) operates in politics, as well.  Hell, it's even possible that Michael Steele is going to survive at the RNC, although at least that much probably won't happen.  I've made this point before, but it's really worth emphasizing: winners strongly tend to believe that everything they did contributed to winning, although in reality that's certainly not true.  Which in turn is related to what JFK said about victory and fathers and losing and orphans. 

(JFK?  Ah, Polsby's Second Law.  By the way, and in keeping with the rambling nature of this post, I'll note that the late Nelson W. Polsby used to like to speak in pronouncements, many of which had an annoying habit of turning out to be true soon after you dismissed them as hyberbole or worse.  The numbering system of his Laws, however, was a lot more dicey -- I remember this one as #2, and a brief look around doesn't disconfirm that, so there you go.  I believe Polsby's First Law was "Graduate Students Are Always Hungry," which is certainly a safe bet). 

Moving on to another tenuously related point, another thing I learned from Bill James was that as much as it feels really exciting to possess insider, secret, information, it's not true that such information is special in any other way.  What matters about information is whether it's true or false, not where it temporarily lies on the conveyor belt from secret to public.  Thus I highly recommend this excellent Matt Yglesias post on Wikileaks, in which he points out that finding out what diplomats say in private isn't the same as finding out secret truths.   (The other obvious point, which I'm surprised that Yglesias hasn't made, or at least not since the last time I looked, is that the problem with either effecting regime change in Iran or at least forcibly ridding that nation of nuclear capacity has never been one of figuring out whether it's a good idea; it's the practical question of whether attempting to do so will yield positive results). 

Yglesias notes that "There’s often a conceit in both the world of intelligence and the world of journalism that “secret” truths are somehow better than ordinary ones."  Quite right.  The thing is that it's very much in the interest of many people -- diplomats, spies, reporters -- to believe that "secret" vs. "known" is the important distinction, rather than "true" vs. "false."  And people are, we know, very good at believing those things that align with their interests.

(Last aside -- I warned you this was a rambling post!  Alas, the Bill James Abstracts are not indexed, and I can't tell you where the specific citations are from.  I'm pretty sure he said it, though.  Either that, or it was Churchill). 

(Also, and again only tangentially related...okay, I guess that means the previous one was only the penultimate aside...this reminds me of the promise made by the opening voice-over of the McLaughlin Group.  That show claimed to deliver "inside opinions and forecasts" -- not informed opinions and accurate forecasts, but just the opinions and forecasts of insiders.  In that, and back in the 1980s when such things were not as readily available, I thought it delivered admirably.  And usefully so, back then: it's often helpful to know what insiders think, no matter how inane or hackneyed).

1 comment:

  1. Your point about "insider information"- and the sheer banality of some of the Wikileaks documents (Putin still runs Russia? SHOCK! Berlesconni is kind of a nut? HOLY COW!)- reminds me of an exchange from the excellent comic series Ex Machina. A high ranking FBI agent is telling the mayor of New York (and the world's only super hero) that she got involved in the FBI because she was a JFK conspiracy nut, and wanted to learn the truth. "The truth," she then says, "Is that nobody knows a fucking thing about anything."


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