Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal Cruise Past Newcastle; Move Closer to Securing 4th

Arsenal cruised past Newcastle 3-0 at the Emirates yesterday, moving 3 points from guaranteeing fourth place and Champions League football for the 17th year in a row. It was a relatively routine victory against a team sputtering toward the end of their season, and possibly manager Alan Pardew’s tenure with the club (only two years after signing an eight-year contract). The scoring started in the 26th minute, when a Santi Cazorla free kick was pounded in from close range by Koscielny. Ozil scored himself in the 42nd minute, after two Giroud shots were parried by Newcastle goalkeeper Krul, the second right into the path of the German international who made no mistake, slotting it between the legs of a Newcastle defender. And the scoring concluded in the 66th minute when Giroud pounded in a header from an excellent Ozil cross. It was an impressive victory, reminding of the Gunners who have led the league for longer than any other team in the top four … and also reminding fans not to celebrate that fourth place too much, given our very real chance to win the league heading into February.

1)  Ozil: When Ozil is given time to roam and sufficient rest, he is still the extraordinary player who has more assists than anyone in Europe over the past few seasons. Even missing 12 of our 36 games in the league so far, Ozil leads the Gunners in chances created (nearing 70) and assists (9). His lack of goals (he still chipped in 5 in the league and 7 overall) really fits a career where he is more often the distributor than the scorer (though he does seem more prolific with the German national team). And he can’t finish the chances he creates. Looking at his season, it is easy to see the problems that emerged in the new year – last year Mourinho tended to take him out after 70 minutes, not pushing him late into game and he was given more rest. But Wenger seemed to feel he needed to get every minute out of his most expensive signing, even making him take a part in an early Capital One Cup game. Better man management will ensure that we get the most of him next year, together with more pace for his ability to send in through balls (Walcott will help, but we also need a faster striker in the middle).

2)  Ramsey/Ozil: Ozil also clearly benefits from the inclusion of Ramsey in the team – I would argue for two reasons: a) when both players are in, teams cannot focus exclusively on either (particularly given Cazorla’s skill (though in short supply Monday) and Podolski’s finishing ability. It was the Ramsey injury that foreshadowed the decline in Ozil’s performance and productivity and one can certainly argue that injury had a lot to do with the late decline. Yes Ozil missed a key penalty against Bayern, but Arsenal were not going to win the UCL this year anyway. b) Ramsey’s work rate improves the Gunners across the board, from his ability to get back defensively, to his constant movement, to his scoring threat this season – opening up the pitch for more creative play and faster counters.

3)  Regrets, We Have a Few: if Arsenal do qualify for the UCL and win the FA Cup, all signs point to Wenger resigning for another two or three years. As anyone who reads my posts knows, this makes me unhappy. But can Wenger finally learn from his years of mistakes and fix things for the coming season? Here are a few things he must do if we are to make a real challenge for the title next term:

a) Sign two strikers and let Giroud go: I love the Frenchman’s workrate, passion and talent in the air, but I just don’t think we can win with him. If we do keep him, he should play against mid to lower-tier teams in the league and in the cups, as his production goes way down against the top teams. The main problem for me is he tends to make us predictable and one dimensional and the top teams can play a narrow back line (as Chelsea did against us, and then Liverpool last weekend), essentially reducing our chance to score. People forget that he had a good chance to tie the game against City, before the two quick counters that put the game out of reach. He simply misses too many chances to be at a team like Arsenal (even with his impressive overall tally of 21, his 15 in the league are just insufficient as our only viable starting centre forward).

b) Replace Arteta: the Spaniard has been one of the better signings from the crazy end of summer spree two seasons ago, but age appears to be catching up with him (he is now 33). He was never really a DM and we appear to be a better, more solid, team when Flamini is playing in that position. I would suggest signing Lars Bender or someone else in that vein to shore up the midfield and allow us to attack without fear of conceding so many goals on the counter – particularly against the top teams in key away matches

c) Tactical Flexibility: Mourinho might be getting considerable criticism for parking the bus against Atletico in the first leg last week and maybe two buses against Liverpool Sunday, but the reality is he wins with consistency and has two Champions League trophies to Wenger’s zero and substantially more silverware over the course of his career (though this is not a tough feat against Le Professeur over the past 9 years). I’m not a huge fan of this tactic, which tends to make games dull, but a simple review of the data on Liverpool during this run would say to play a more defensive first half at Anfield. If Wenger had instructed his team to do so – lest us forget they had the best defensive record in the EPL in 2013 – they may have withstood the early barrage and gotten into the game. The exact same thing can be said of the away games against City and Chelsea and his unwillingness to use this strategy in big games is baffling to say the least. In fact, it was that more defensive stance that helped them beat Tottenham thrice and Liverpool twice, counting the FA Cup victories. The greatest tactical change I’ve seen Wenger make in recent years was the purely offensive setup he employed in the second leg against AC Milan a few years ago, that almost erased a four goal first leg deficit. Maybe he needs to bring in another voice to improve the overall tactics now that Bould has had a positive effect defensively, in general. 

d) Review of Training Regime: Wenger might have been reading some of the criticism emerging out of England in recent months, as he claims he will review his training techniques after leading the EPL in injury time out for at least the third year running. This was not the only thing that cost us the title (record against the top 7 and three late draws all contributed to the collapse) but it played a key role, as we can see when Ozil and Ramsey are on the pitch together.

e) Strengthen the Squad Depth Overall: our top players need more rest throughout the course of the season, to allow them to perform in the key months of February and March, when Arsenal seem to collapse almost every year. This requires better reserve players who can step in and contribute. If everyone is healthy next year, we have a decent midfield minus a defensive-minded player like Bender – but we could use another central defender, a world class striker and a winger with pace and good crossing ability. Maybe some of our most impressive reserves can move up next season, but this has also been rare in recent years. Wenger has considerable money at his disposal, let’s hope he spends it, spends it well, and spends it early – to ensure late summer misses don’t leave us short in key positions.

Beyond Arsenal, we have the second legs of the UCL semis this week and Real Madrid put on a show for the ages today, crushing Bayern at home 4-0. It was a dominant performance, where they were rock solid in the box, pushed up high and were deadly on the counter. Chelsea take on Atletico tomorrow and one assumes Mourinho will play a more open style to try to take the lead, though he has to watch out for the deadly away goal. Real look like the favorites against either team, but it would pit one of the two best defenses in Europe against a team that appears to have more offensive fire power than anyone else at the moment. And in one of the great ironies of derby football, Liverpool fans will have to root for hated rival Everton to at least draw against Man City this weekend if they are to have a realistic chance of reclaiming the title left in the ashes of a Gerrard error for the ages. 

Conservatives Put Foot In It … What Else is New?

Three quotes from three leading conservatives in the past few days more or less sums up the state of the Grand Ole Party these days …

Sarah Palin: “Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” (Gawker)

Rep. Paul Ryan to an early morning church service, speaking about his passion for bowhunting: “Usually when I get up this early, I get up to kill something.” (Political Wire)

Rush Limbaugh, on LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his racist rant (for those who don’t know, he was just banned for life and fined $2.5 million dollars by the NBA): “Look, this Donald Sterling business, I have to tell you something, folks, this is not news to anybody who has known of this guy. I was telling Mr. Snerdley this morning, this guy's a big Democrat.  The only reason he's in trouble right now is he did not give enough money to Obama.  This guy was gonna get a leadership award from the NAALCP LA chapter, the second one.  This guy is a typical Hollywood Democrat.  He's sort of a pretend A-lister.  But who he is, his racialist tendencies, everything on these tapes, it's been so widely known by everybody in the NBA, everybody in the sports media for 10 to 15 years, for however long he's owned this team. “( The only problem … Sterling is a registered Republican. Funny, Fox News tends to make this mistake often when a GOPer is involved in a scandal. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yet Another Twist in Epic EPL Season

Liverpool stood three games and seven points away from their first title in 24 years – with Chelsea the last significant challenge to their once unlikely coronation. But as has so often been the case this season, something funny happened on the way to the trophy, and the powder blue of Manchester City wrestled control away from Liverpool red. The game of the weekend, framed as a potential crowning-in-all-but-official-terms for Liverpool and the final-nail-in-the-Mourinho-title-challenge-coffin, turned in the cruelest of ways, as an errors by captain and star Steven Gerrard in the 48th minute sent Demba Ba in on goal for the opener after Liverpool had dominated the first half (though without creating many clear chances). The Reds then chased the equalizer that would have still left them as favorites for most of the second half, before ceding a late second goal on a two-on-goalie counter, finished by Willem after a nice pass from Torres in close. Man City then confirmed the shift in odds with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, led by an assist and sublime goal from the just returning Yaya Toure in a dominant first half that held up.

In the top four race, there were big ramblings as well as Everton barely showed up for a near must-win game at Southampton, losing by the same 2-0 score that cost David Moyes his job last weekend (as United’s minute chances of sneaking back in disintegrated). Everton not only lost, but were outplayed from beginning to end, reminding of the Southampton team that took the EPL by storm earlier in the season, before a serious tailing off around the New Year. This should give Arsenal a little breathing room in the race to 4th (assuming they win at Newcastle tomorrow). Even with an unlikely loss, they would still hold a one-point lead – meaning Wenger will probably sign that extension to his contract, as the rumour-mill has been predicting this week (alas). At the bottom of the table, Sunderland continued their impressive Houdiniesque escape effort, grabbing all three points against Cardiff City and sneaking into 17th place – while making Cardiff owner Tan look foolish for sacking the coach who got them up in the first place and had them above the bottom three during his entire short reign in the EPL. Fulham suffered a heartbreaking draw after holding a 2-0 lead at home against Hull and now look likely to exit the Premier League for the first time in 13 years. And Norwich dropped into 17th themselves, losing 4-0 to Manchester United, in their first of four games under interim manager Ryan Giggs.  The bottom three will have a tough time climbing out now, as the three teams above them all have a game in hand (including Sunderland). But who knows in this crazy season.

Some thoughts on the weekend and what it means for one of the most highly contested title/top four/relegation battles in recent memory …

Thinking back over the course of the season, City were the title favorites before Arsenal went on an impressive run and led the league for the longest stretch of anyone all season. But their expected second-half fade opened the door for first Liverpool, then Chelsea, then City, then Liverpool and now City. And upstarts Everton and Southampton looked likely to crack the top four at various times before fading late, as Tottenham spent a fortune to finish a place lower than the past two seasons (actually, it looks like they will go from 4th to 5th to 6th).

1.  It’s hard to ignore how impressive Mourinho’s tactics are in big games. It led him to two Champions League titles earlier in his career (at Porto and Inter, of course), title after title challenge and a host of other cups – though his record against Barca and inability to win the UCL with Real dented that record. Looking at his performance this year, and the real chance of moving onto the UCL final yet again with a win at Stamford Bridge Wednesday, reminds both of his flexibility and the deep contrast with my man Arsene Wenger. Chelsea played a wide-open game against City at the Etihad and beat them 3-2, then sat back for most of the game against Liverpool at Anfield and won 2-0. They did the same thing on the road at Arsenal in December, playing to a dull 0-0 draw that stifled Arsenal’s chance to forge further ahead and then crushed them with a blitzing attack at the Bridge in April. And they parked the bus against the favored Atletico on the road, escaping with another 0-0 draw that makes them the favorite to advance to the final yet again. Mourinho can be obnoxious, demonstrate complete lack of class and fall back on negative tactics whenever he feels overmatched, but it is hard to fault his record. Ironically, it is Chelsea’s record against lesser opponents and the surprise ending of his undefeated record at the Bridge last weekend that will probably cost them the title.

2.  Poor Steven Gerrard: the captain of Liverpool who has won the Champion’s League, FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League title looked ready to claim his first EPL crown in the waning days of his illustrious career. And then a bizarre error on the wrong side of the midfield line and a slip in trying to recover might have cost the team that title he so coveted. The sick irony, particularly given his impressive form all season, after two years of injury-ridden declining returns, must be hard for anyone in Liverpool to stomach (except those pesky Everton fans, of course). A few weeks ago, it looked like Liverpool would win the league and Everton snatch fourth from under Arsenal’s grasp. Today, both look more likely to come up just short … though Everton, ironically, provide the toughest test to City’s attempt to win yet another title on goal difference alone (assuming both clubs win out).

3.  Stats Only Tell us So Much: coming into the game today, Liverpool had lost only once since December 29th (to Arsenal in the FA Cup), when they were beaten in the opposite fixture at Chelsea. They led in possession in the game today 69-30 percent and outshot Chelsea 26 to 11 (and 8 to 4 on goal). They played a Chelsea team that was without Hazard, Terry, Eto’o, Oscar and Cahill (until late on). Ashley Cole played for only the 15th time all campaign and Tomas Kalas made his debut as CB. And yet Mourinho’s bank of four and three, with two additional mids pushing up on the ball was all but impossible for Liverpool to break through, and their lack of width (and the absence of Sturridge until the 60th minute) failed to find the necessary break through. Gerrard actually had a rather average game, after trying to make up for the error, Suarez was largely ineffectual and Sterling’s sterling start failed to produce the goal it sometimes seemed to deserve. In the end, the reality is that errors lead to goals and goals trump every other statistic. Arsenal have been losing games where they dominate possession for years and the Liverpool offensive juggernaut just seemed unready for the defensive wall they faced from the first moment to the last.

In this crazy season, don’t bet against the most unlikely of results when all is said and done – with a late six-point charge by Fulham somehow saving them, an Arsenal flop leaving Everton in fourth or Chelsea squeaking by for the crown. But both City and Arsenal now have their destiny in their own hands … let’s see if they can seize the moment for the last few games of the season.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Surprise, Surprise … David Brooks Wrong Again

It is not surprising to find David Brooks wrong. In fact, it appears to be his bailiwick, or special talent, or preternatural domain – taking a complex problem and providing a simple, commonsensical answer that is almost always short sighted or just plain wrong. In this case, he is talking about common core and his rather conventional view that education is all about American global competitiveness: “[Education] is to get students competitive with their international peers.” (NYT Op Ed) Education is not about personal betterment, setting students up for future success in their economic, political and social lives, a path to upward mobility, about teaching tolerance and cross-cultural understanding, creating an informed and educated populace to serve our democracy or any of those other middling goals of a bygone era. And if you disagree with him, well, you’re just not listening hard enough (Academe Blog)  

Brooks has been wrong about one thing after another for many years now. Take, for example, his position on the eve of the war in Iraq in 2003. First he absolved Bush of any moral responsibility to actually consider the potential costs of war, actually mocking anyone who disagrees with him (apparently a common trait for him): “They want him to show a little anguish. They want baggy eyes, evidence of sleepless nights, a few photo-ops, Kennedy-style, of the president staring gloomily through the Oval Office windows into the distance.” Then he provides the lie that cost thousands of American lives and over 130,000 Iraqi civilians theirs: “Bush gave Saddam time to disarm. Saddam did not. Hence, the issue of whether to disarm him forcibly is settled.” And even before the infamous “Mission Accomplished” Bush speech, Brooks declared on April 28, 2003 that “the war in Iraq is over.” (Salon)

For a time, Brooks stuck to his guns, belittling anyone who disagreed with him with lines like, “Come on, people, let’s get a grip.” He disparaged the “Chicken Littles like [Democratic senators] Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd [who] were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam” and then ridiculed the “pundits and sages [who] were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion!” The American people needed to exhibit patience, and allow the carnage to continue until he was proven right: “The task is unavoidable . . . The terrorists are enemies of civilization. They must be defeated.” Ultimately, he changed his tune and turned against the administration, but it took even longer for him to finally offer a mea culpa, on behalf of all the hawks (uninvited, one should add), claiming begrudgingly, ““We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy.” And then went on to another fantasy to explain himself, “As long as we seemed so mighty, others, even those we were aiming to assist, were bound to revolt. They would do so for their own self-respect. In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves.”

Or take the case of his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, which argues for the inherent meritocracy of the “new bohemian” elites who apparently care more about meaning than materialism and more about experience than acquisition. (Prospect) The term bobos thus engenders this new “bohemian bourgeoisie” elite, now ruling the world: "This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out … They find a way to be an artist and still qualify for stock options." And then “"To be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to ... show how little your worldly success means to you. You always want to dress one notch lower than those around you." But while there are certainly these rare creatures among the media elite, and maybe, to a lesser degree, among the tech ingénues, what about the Wall Street bankers and traders, the Pharmaceutical salesmen, the lobbyists and conservative media gods? What of the remaining members of the blue-blooded elite? What of their children? What of the cadre of celebrities have taken conspicuous consumption to belle-époque levels? What of the CEOs of our multinationals? All of these are missing from a book that seems to be about Brooks creating a rallying cry or a fictionalized image of himself.

And these are but three examples of a “pragmatic conservative” who is practically always wrong. But in could be argued that he but a symptom of a New York Times opinion corps that has gone from bad to worse over the past few years. Beyond Brook’s folksy, uber-patriotic, American exceptionalist, commonsensical “soft conservatism,” we have the uncritical shish kum bah globalization and neoliberal cheerleading of the corporate-sponsored Thomas Friedman, the bombastic, but ultimately unsatisfying, linguistic gymnastics of Maureen Dowd, the dull, preening liberalism of Bob Herbert (who I like), Nickolas  Kristoff and Gail Collins and the exceptional, but I would guess uninteresting to non-believers, empiricism of Paul Krugman (whose every column could be predicted based on the topic with 95% confidence). One almost feels whimsical nostalgia for the wit of William Safire, as much as we might have disagreed with his perspective on everything except language. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Arsenal Win 3-0 in FA Cup Final Warmup

Arsenal were largely outplayed in the first half of their game against Hull, but some strong goalkeeping by Szczesny, a friendly post and two moments of genius, both started by Ozil, led the Gunners to a 2-0 first half lead. The first goal came in the 31st minute, when Ozil sent a ball toward the middle of goal from the edge of the box. Cazorla picked it up and sent Ramsey through on goal, with the Wales international making no mistake to score in his first start since Boxing Day. The second goal came on a counter in the 45th minute, when a nice Ozil pass to Giroud was lofted across goal to Ramsey, who chested it right into the path of a charging Podolski. The hot German left no doubts with a rifled shot across goal into the far corner that was his third of the week. And thus a half in which Arsenal were often overrun in the middle, were outpossessed and had to hold on against attack after attack ended with them in a comfortable position, due in no small part to the return of their two stars from the first half of the campaign. Ozil looked sublime in his return with several through balls, the passes that set up both goals and some surprising strength in possession. Ramsey scored one and set up another. And Koscielny was also a welcome return.

The second half saw Arsenal play with more resolve and they all but sealed it in the 54th minute when a spell of possession led to Monreal sending a nice through ball to Cazorla near the touchline on the left. He sent the ball back across goal to Ramsey, whose shot was well saved by the Hull GK, but Podolski nabbed the rebound, took two touches to settle and then scored with a strong finish from close range (giving Ramsey his second assist). Ozil came off in the 60th minute for Flamini, a good substitution that might mean Wenger is finally paying attention to how the German was used at Real last year (though it could simply be injury recovery management). From here, the Gunners bossed possession and took control of the game, missing out on several chances to add to their lead. In the 64th minute, Giroud stole the ball from the goalie and had a relatively easy finish, though from an acute angle, and failed to score and in the 68th took a nice pass from Ramsey in on goal and then inexplicably passed it off, before being subbed out for Ox in the 74th minute – reinforcing the general consensus among many fans including me that this should be the final season for the Frenchman, who plays with real heart but insufficient finishing ability – particularly when compared to Podolski, who has scored 17 goals in 28 games for club and country this year (with only 20 of those starts). Sanogo then came on for a cameo in the 84th minute of a contest that fell into a relative lull over the last 20 minutes or so – completely missing a shot in the 89th that reinforced the notion he also has a long way to go to become a top striker.

In the end, it was Arsenal’s 14th clean sheet of the season, all with Szczesny in goal – though this one was assisted by some poor Hull finishing in the first half and the aforementioned post, when a Jake Livermore shot across goal that beat Sz thankfully hit it. Now three games stand between the Gunners and fourth place yet again, though the league campaign cannot be thought of as anything but a disappointment and missed opportunity. On the other hand, it might serve as a good foundation to move forward next season if the squad can be improved and they don’t lose any of their top players (Podolski and Koscielny, for two, have garnered considerable interest from top teams and Cazorla is showing some signs of discontent).   

Everton’s 2-1 win against Manchester United concluded an extraordinary week in England, and in world football in general. First, on Wednesday, Manchester City’s title run took another huge body blow as they were lucky to nab a late equalizer at the Ethiad against bottom dweller Sunderland. At the same time, Everton lost their advantage in the race to secure Champions League football, falling 3-2 to Crystal Palace. Then Sunderland pulled off another stunner four days later, taking down Chelsea and ending Mourinho’s unbeaten streak at the Bridge at 77 games. When Liverpool beat Norwich 3-2 in a back and forth affair started by a stunning goal from outside the box by Raheem Sterling (4’), they were suddenly the preemptive favorites to end their 24-year title drought and win their 20th title. The Reds now have a 5 point lead over Chelsea and 9 points over Man City (who have two games in hand), meaning they could draw or maybe even lose to Chelsea at Anfield next weekend and still win the title; though City do have a two goal advantage in the goal differential at present. That could mean, for those not paying attention, that Liverpool could win their remaining games except against Chelsea, City could win all theirs, and the Blues could win their second title in three years by goal difference.

Looking beyond England, Gareth Bale continued his largely under-the-radar brilliant first season in Spain by scoring a late winner to secure his first piece of silverware, beating Barcelona 2-1 in the Copa del Rey final. This seemed to be the final blow in a disappointing season for Barcelona, who find themselves five points behind Atletico with only * games left, out of the UCL before the final four for the first time in 7 years and generally uninspired and vulnerable, with rumours of major changes this offseason (though I’m suspect of the Messi links to PSG and City). In Germany, Italy and France, we might be seeing repeat champions – as Juve and PSG close in and Bayern has already wrapped it up. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The New Marx?

Well not yet … but 42-year-old French economist Thomas Picketty is rocking not only the hallowed halls of the ivory tower but the corridors of power as well. His new book, Capital in the 21st Century, is already on the New York Times bestseller list and his current tour of the U.S. is drawing interest and accolades among the Washington and New York elites. The book looks at data on taxation and income inequality, a topic the author has been working on with fellow French left-leaning economist Emmanuel Saez for over a decade. It concludes, in direct conflict with conventional wisdom in the field from at least the 50s, that mature capitalist economies will inevitably evolve toward greater income inequality. In fact, he finds quite the opposite, in that the rate of return on capital tends to outstrip the overall rate of growth (meaning imperfect markets with artificially deflated wages, market power or both) and that this leads to the concentration of wealth at the top of the ladder.

That has certainly been the case in the United States and UK, where the undereported story of the conservative revolution revolves around the upward movement of wealth since the 80s. This renewed interest in income inequality is not solely the result of two, until recently, obscure French academics of course. It also revolves around the uncredited influence of the now defunct Occupy movement and, maybe, the inopportunely released comments about the 47% made by Romney during his failed campaign for President. The reality today is that income inequality is dramatically on the rise predominantly because wages of all but the top earners have been artificially suppressed while merger after merger have created humongous multinational corporations with substantial market power. The former allows for higher wages and income at the top of the economic ladder while the latter allows companies to artificially inflate prices above their optimal level (thus creating a double-squeeze on the middle class and poor as their wages decrease as inflation increases).

Picketty goes far beyond simply relying on the data to speak for him though, to offer prescriptive policy reform proposals. Among the most controversial is a tax on wealth that can both redistribute income more fairly and improve economic growth (as the marginal rate of spending to income is higher the lower an individual or families’ income is). By acknowledging that economics cannot be looked out outside the specter of its relationship to the political world, Picketty moves beyond the limitations that disciplinary boundaries too often impose on academic research – making it both too arcane and too specific to be of use to policymakers or the general public. And his dedication to both democracy and markets makes him a better spokesman for radical social reform than either Stiglitz or Krugman. Picketty argues in the end that, “capitalism and markets should be the slave of democracy and not the opposite” and that to achieve this the average citizen must ““take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it and its history.”This is where the more left-leaning economists and politicians have too often lost the average citizen and the question now is how to provide quality popular education that can provide the rudimentary understanding necessary to make these arguments resonate beyond those corridors of power and money so excited or repelled by these ideas. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Economic Inequality Simplified

Cartoon by Gary Varvel - Cartoonist Gary Varvel: Obama, Putin and the fly-by

The New Political Tribalism

Following up on my post from last week, Believing is Seeing, I wanted to briefly explore what I will call the “new political tribalism” that seems to be at the heart of vitriolic partisanship that has allowed this Congress to be crowned the the greatest “do nothing” Congress in history. Marshall McLuhan argued in his seminal work Understanding Media (1962) that the world was “retribalizing” as new technologies like television, the radio, record players and other instruments of the “electronic age” nudged humanity toward a “post literate” ontology. This has arguably only accelerated with the birth of the Internet and, more recently, social networking.

While I find the Salon article from Sunday, Liberal Fascism is Everywhere, rather reductivist and absurd in its analogy of recent leftist behavior with Stalin’s purges, it does highlight the fact that it is not only conservatives that are demonstrating the closing of the American mind. In fact, the new tribalism appears to be based on the very echo chamber new technology provides; undermining not only civil or reasoned debate, but debate of any kind. Rather than McLuhan’s “literate man”, who relied on “objective” distanced observation and analysis, science and rationality, the post-literate variety relies more on charismatic leaders of movements, blind faith, collective “tribal” beliefs, mythology and spirituality. Facts don’t much matter to the post-literate man because he is too busy proclaiming the truth from up high, his voice echoing out through the many parrots who will spread those words to the flocks.

And as I have commented on in the past, this is increasingly as true of liberals and even leftists as it is of the right wing lunatics. Key left-leaning entertainers like Jon Stewart and Bill Mayer offer up strong but ironic critiques of the mainstream media and right, but in a voice that is steeped in moral and intellectual superiority – largely aimed at those who already agree. Too much of the blogosphere does the same thing, though with more earnestness and less wit. And too many left-leaning activists have adopted a one-sided first amendment argument, that says we should listen to anyone they even tacitly agree with while trying to muffle any voices they find “offensive.” It is hypocrisy at its worst and yet another indicator of why the left has become so marginalized in the last few decades.

It is hard to open yourself to the ideas of those who disagree with you and much more comfortable to seek the solace of the like-minded. It creates an imaginary community itself; one where members can feel both safe and superior to their enemies, who are always thought of as ignorant and morally-corrupted. Yet that comfort comes at a ridiculous price to democracy and any effort to fight for the common good. So don’t just tune into your enemies once in a while, actually listen to what they say. Otherwise, we might as well close the election booths and simply give the country to the corporate leaders who already run the show for all intents and purposes. 

Three Things: Arsenal 3 West Ham 1

Arsenal won the first of five must win today, beating West Ham at the Emirates 3-1, leaving four EPL games and the FA Cup final to come. The first half was back and forth with both team missing gilded opportunities, including a one-on-one Giroud failed to convert (though he did appear offsides) along with two other decent opportunities and a flub from close range by West Ham’s Diame. West Ham actually got on the scoreboard first, when a parried Nocerino shot was headed in from close range by Jarvis in the 40th minute. This seemed to wake up a somewhat jaded Arsenal side and they were level three and a half minutes later (44’) when a missed clearance by Downey was snatched up by Cazorla just outside the box and sent in to Podolski on the left. The German settled the ball then rifled it in the far corner.

The second half saw a much stronger Arsenal performance and they went ahead with an excellent goal from Giroud (55’), who used his foot to deaden a perfect long ball from Vermaelen, filling in at left back, before taking a touch and smashing the ball between the GK Adrian’s legs. Aaron Ramsey came on for Tomas Rosicky in the 72nd minute and added a creative dimension long missing from a side in recent decline. In fact it was his header that ensured the Gunners would take all three points, as he nudged a Giroud cross forward to Podolski who allowed the ball to roll past before slashing in into the roof of the net (78’). The Gunners thus grabbed the vital three points to push back into fourth place by a point, though Everton play tomorrow against Crystal Palace with a game in hand.

1. It was an important win for the Gunners, but in many ways demonstrated the mistakes that cost them a shot at the title. They have been beating teams outside the top half all year, but failing in the big games against their major competitors and continued that trend today. West Ham played a surprisingly open game at times, and Arsenal had plenty of chances, but failed to convert too many of them. And Giroud scored a spectacular goal but missed too many other opportunities, while Podolski scored on two of his three chances. And Arsenal looked open defensively throughout the first half, seemingly more vulnerable whenever the once reliable Arteta is on the pitch. Most of all, they seemed too predictable at times, a result of having no real backup to Giroud.

2. Everton, like Liverpool, have their fate in their own hands, but face a much more difficult run in, having to play both Manchester teams and a tough Southampton that took points off many of the top seven this season (including Arsenal in the disappointing 2-2 draw last month that was facilitated by a late own goal). But Arsenal’s fate is outside their hands for the time being and they know that they must take maximum points from the next four fixtures to keep the pressure on a young team hungry for a shot at the UCL. And a failure here would have major ramifications for the Gunners, who still need at least one, if not two, first rate strikers, a right back to replace Sagna if he leaves and a defensive mid – along with a CB. Some will not want to come if Champions League football is not in the offing, and that has become a real possibility. On the other hand, I do think Everton will drop points and Arsenal will pip the fourth spot by a nose hair for the third year running. The great irony is that it might open the door for Roberto Martinez to take the reins from Wenger next year.

3.  Giroud is a hard working centre forward with all the skills, except pace, to be exception – if not quite World Class. He has now scored 20 goals in all competitions, but only a largely disappointing 14 goals in 32 EPL starts (though his 7 assists is a better than expected return). He has added two UCL goals (in 7 games) and another 4 very important ones in the FA Cup run (in 6 games, all as a sub). But without having the exact statistics in front of me, I think he fails to convert even 1 in 3 of his chances, many times flubbing three or four in a single game. Given the lack of a backup, which is Wenger’s fault, he sometimes appears to be playing on empty, but this is not a sufficient excuse. The reality is that we should probably sell him this summer and bring in two new strikers. Beyond his profligacy in league games, he is a great hold-up player and strong forward that can give CBs fits, as he did at times against West Ham today. But he too often makes Arsenal a predictable team, and in my estimation, undermines the creative talent of Ozil and Ramsey – to send through balls in that can be easily converted. Walcott will provide that threat again next season, as will Podolski if he stays. But when the post-mortem is written on this term, behind Wenger in the blame column stands Giroud – not for lack of effort, but for failing to the find the back of the net often enough; particularly when it mattered the most. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Liverpool Move into Driver’s Seat in Title Race (3-2 Over City)

In a game that had everything from an own goal and two-goal reversal to a red card and late winner, the match at Anfield between Manchester City and host Liverpool may go down in the annals of English Football, particularly if the Reds go on to win their first title in 24 long years. Both teams went for it from the opening whistle to the last moment – in some ways indicting the negative tactics Mourinho is so famous for in big games. Liverpool got on the board early, when a beautiful holdup and then through pass by Suarez was finished in spectacular fashion by Raheem Sterling, cutting back across both Kompany and Hart (5’). Liverpool were rampant from there and made it 2-0 in the 26th minute, when a powerful header by Martin Skrtel from a corner flew past Hart. That is how the half ended but things began to shift in the second 45.

Man City came out and began attacking with purpose from the second half whistle and leveled the game in a whirlwind five minutes started by an excellent David Silva goal in the 57th and then an own goal by Skrtel off another Silva shot. With the score 2-2 and 30 minutes left, City seemed the more likely to win, even as a draw would have and continued their status as the preemptive favorites for the title. Instead they continued to attack and were unlucky not to go ahead when Dzeko found himself free on goal and was well saved by Mignolet. But in the 78th minute, a simple clearance for captain Vincent Kompany was fluffed right into the path of Coutinho, who kept his head down and finished to the near corner in impressive fashion. City pushed for the equalizer, but Liverpool held tough and moved a step closer to what would be a one of the most surprising title in recent memory.

And thus Captain Gerrard, who had a number of key tackles inside and outside the box to go with excellent play in the buildups and the assist on the Skrtel goal, outplayed Captain Kompany, who was guilty of lapses on two of the three Liverpool goals, ironically making the difference after Kompany wasn’t even supposed to play. Liverpool have now won 10 straight games and stand four from the title, though this one will not be registered without some protests from City. For one, there were two missed penalty calls – the first for a clumsy Sakho challenge on Dzeko in the box and the second a hand ball by Skrtel in the 91st minute that really should have been called (as his arm was extended far in front of his face and stopped a header opportunity). And Suarez should have been gone early in the second half after a clear dive went unpenalized with him already in the book for an early yellow. When Henderson was shown a red in the 93rd minute for a stupid tackle, it was too late for City to take advantage of. That was the only bad news at Anfield today, as he will now miss most 3/4ths of the rest of the season, including the key matchup against Chelsea in a fortnight.

Less than a year ago, Steven Gerrard gave an interview where he admitted he expected to retire without a title. With four games left, that dream can finally come true for one of the class acts in English football, who has already experienced victory in the all of the major Cup competitions. But standing in his way are relegation threatened Norwich and Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Newcastle. The title is now theirs to win … let’s see if they can finally bring it home. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

By the Whisker of his Chinny Chin Chin (Arsenal on to FA Cup Final)

Arsenal are through to the FA Cup final by the hair on Mertesacker’s chinny chin chin. After conceding the penalty that put Wigan up in the 63rd minute, the big German header in the equalizer in the 82nd minute. Arsenal then seemed on the verge of winning the game in regulation, though several more misses by Sanogo (I count an extraordinary 13 chances that he missed – some because he failed to attack a decent cross or through ball) and a shot by Ox that went off the bar left them tied and heading into extra time. More opportunities presented themselves in the two 15 minute extra periods, but the Gunners profligacy in front of goal continued.

And so it came down to penalties to decide who would return to Wembley in three weeks to try to raise the FA Cup crown. Wigan were first off, and when Fabianski saved a Caldwell effort and Arteta coolly took his chance, hope began to mount for a mediocre but epic Gunner victory. Fabianski saved on the opposite end of goal to substitute Collison and Kollstrom (in his first game since signing for Arsenal) made it 2-0. Beausejour finally secured the first penalty for Wigan but Giroud followed with a slotted shot to the near post. McCarthur stood up with the game on the line and scored and it thus came down to Cazorla, the very man who warned he would leave if trophies were not won soon. He stepped up and sent a perfect strike through – sending Arsenal to their first opportunity at a trophy since the devastating and shambolic loss to Birgmingham in the League Cup three years ago.

The players celebrated as if a trophy was already won, sending ex-United star Roy Keane into an apoplectic attack, but it was a moment to savor after so much failure over the past two plus months. Let’s review what’s happened since Arsenal started the year with 5 straight wins (two in the FA Cup) and led the league. They suffered through a tough 2-2 draw with Southampton on the road then won at home against Crystal Palace 2-0. They headed to Liverpool with a chance to get back into the trophy race, but were destroyed 5-1. Then they played a tepid game at home against United, with Giroud missing two clear opportunities to score. They did beat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup 5th round, though they were thoroughly outplayed in the second half. They then lost 2-0 to Bayern in the first leg of the UCL after Szczesny was sent off early then beat Sunderland 4-1 at home to restore a little order. But their title bid was over 9 days later as they lost a terrible game 1-0 at Stoke. Another FA Cup win followed, impressively 4-1 over a hot Everton at the Emirates but they were then sent out of the UCL for the fourth year running, and the second in a row by Bayern, after a 1-1 draw on the road. On the 16th of March, they beat Tottenham 1-0 at White Hart Lane and seemed to have an outside shot at the title heading to the Bridge to face Chelsea. And this is where the wheels came off completely, in a 6-0 drubbing that was over after 20 minutes. A 2-2 draw with Swansea at the Emirates followed, after the Gunners had come back to take a 2-1 lead and then a disheartening 3-0 loss at Everton.

And so confidence was at an all-time low as they headed into the biggest game of a season that has gotten away from them. If Everton win out, they will finish outside the top four for the first time in 16 years and the injury list continues to be troubling. Sure they were prohibitive favorites against a side that won the Cup last year but was then relegated, but one could see the nervousness from the outset. Chances came and went in the first few minutes, but then the game settled into a pattern of Arsenal possession without sufficient forward momentum. Wigan had a few chances but seemed content to sit back and play on the counter. And so the game went until the fateful penalty that almost ended Wenger’s career at Arsenal for sure. But destiny had other plans and this disappointing run in could be papered over with a FA Cup win and their first title in 9 long years. And that should be the icing on the cake of the end of Wenger’s reign.

Player Grades:

I haven’t been doing this much this season, but I thought I would this week, given the rather tepid though ultimately successful game.

Fabianski (8) – only made one mistake all game (when he came out and failed to nab the ball late in the game) and his two saves to start the penalty shoot-out were instrumental to the PK win, a rarity in the past nine years though it was the second shootout the Gunners have won in a row (after the Capital One Cup victory over West Brom early in the season).

Mertesacker (7) – The big German has seemed to decline in form in recent games, maybe missing his preferred partner Koscielny, and a senseless tackle just inside the box gave Wigan a penalty and the 1-0 lead. But his header at the far post from a cross restored parity and a couple of blocks and saves in the closing minutes and extra time ensured that Wigan didn’t find the winner they were so hungry for.

Vermaelen (6) – Vermaelen made no major mistakes, but he just isn’t the player he was two seasons ago and should probably go at the end of this term. His positional discipline continues to be a problem, his attempts at long passes ill-advised and his foray’s forward leave the team exposed on the counter.

Sagna (7) – A good game for the right back who sent in a number of good crosses that any decent finisher would have, well, finished. Did have a good chance to score after a Mertesacker header on a corner left him free at an acute angle, but failed to finish. Wigan rarely attacked from his side of the field.

Monreal (5.5) – Was average yet again, particularly on the defensive side. His dip in form is hard to explain but he seems too slow for the EPL and we might consider selling him for a better backup to Gibbs.

Arteta (5.5) – It seems that replacing Arteta might be one of the most important pieces of business for Arsenal this summer (I like Gundongen or Lars Bender as the best options). He just seems a little off the pace these days, has never been a natural DM, lacks the precision in his passing of previous years and doesn’t really pose a scoring threat any longer. Gave the ball away on several occasions, fouled all over the field but did score the all-important first penalty.

Ramsey (6.5) – Ramsey had some lovely moments with a few of his passes, but his first start since Boxing Day was largely forgettable. Was subbed by Kollstrom in the 113th minute. He did cover an incredible amount of space, as is his habit and his return will certainly give Arsenal hope of restoring their position in fourth before the end of the season (if Everton slip up).

Podolski (6) – invisible for large portions of the game, though he did create and provide a couple of opportunities. Was subbed for Giroud in the 68th minute, to boos from the crowd, as many thought Sanogo should have given way.

Ox (7.5) – Ox was the most lively and active player throughout and was unlucky in the 20th minute of extra time to have his shot hit the post. Several of his passes and crosses could very well have led to goals if Sanogo didn’t flub chance after chance.

Cazorla (6) – a pretty average game for the little Spaniard who usually can, though his penalty shot ultimately won the game. His slight drop in form and lack of goals must be considered a contributing factor to the Gunners decline, even if he is often the best player on the pitch.

Sanogo (4) – this young striker has the skills to be a top striker in the future, if he can learn composure and assuredness in front of goal. He is insufficiently aggressive at getting to balls in the box, timid when one on one with the goalkeeper and tends to take too long to set up shots. As I said earlier, I could 11 chances in total and at least 6 or 7 shot that were generally poor. A good striker scores with 1 of every 3 opportunities and Sanogo’s inability to score even one goal since joining Arsenal, together with the injuries, shows why the lack of a second quality striker has been so heavily critiqued all season.

Gibbs (7) – Gibbs brought speed and forward momentum to the team when he was brought on in the 63rd minute. Got into the box on several occasions and the biggest critique one might make of his game right now is his unwillingness to shoot (as he often finds himself free in dangerous positions).

Giroud (6) – his appearance in the 68th minute seemed to push Arsenal forward, though he allowed Sanogo to take the more forward position and this clearly cost the team. His penalty shot was also key and might do a little to restore his confidence from earlier in the season.

Kollstrom (--) – was only on for a few minutes, but had two decent scoring attempts, both missed. But his penalty was also essential to the victory.

Overall, it was a pretty disappointing performance punctuated at the end with the sort of mettle too often missing from Wenger teams since 2005. Could a victory in the final restore some confidence to a reeling team, reminding them they had the most points in the EPL for 2013? We will have to see, but Everton’s lucky victory (from an own goal late), took them one step closer to that elusive fourth place spot at our expense. The only good news is they still have both Manchester clubs in the run in. Arsenal head home to play West Ham Tuesday in a must win. COYG!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rumsfeld Compares Obama to a “Trained Ape” and Finds him Inferior

I’ve been meaning to report on this outrageous story for a couple of weeks now, but am just getting around to it. Late last month, Donald Rumsfeld reminded us again why the eight years of the Bush administration was, well, eight years too long. On Fox News, unsurprisingly, Rummy compared Obama to “a trained ape,” finding his adminstration lacking in that comparison when it comes to the handling of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Greta van Susteren failed to ask the obvious follow-up question, about her old bosses superiority as a trained animal. Or his own abilities at finding Weapons of Mass Destruction or reasonable estimates of how long wars last. But I digress …

Ring Wing Attacks on Education Continue

Two stories in the last few days highlight the continued attacks of the right on education at all levels. In a more general sense, we can look at No Child Left Behind, The Students Bill of Rights, efforts to privatize education, the charter school movement and the like. More specifically, we have a new budget in Kansas that adds money while attacking teachers anew while in South Carolina we find legislators censoring college programs.

The Kansas education bill signed into law early Sunday morning did increase funding to schools, but at the cost of due process for teachers – allowing the firing of teachers without the hearings that now provide a mechanism for challenging unfair firings. The legislation was apparently at the behest of the Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity group, though it lacked democratic process, as outlined by Kent Bush of the Butler County Times –Gazette, “That is the problem with the Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers. They buy their way into offices so that they don’t have to participate in actual politics. You will never hear AFP or the Koch brothers in a direct debate … Hundreds of teachers filled the state capitol this weekend trying to lobby for legislators to take their side. There was no similar response from AFP. No one from that group stood in the chambers or held signs asking for legislators to take away teachers’ due process. They don’t have to. They write checks, send secret emails and support groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council, which has two Kansas legislators on the board of directors) that create legislation like that passed this weekend.” And so the attacks on teachers continue – undermining the most important part of the educational system (as has been shown again and again across the most effective systems in the world).

The University of South Carolina Upstate also suffered an attack from the legislature, though in this case demanding that they cancel a humorous LGBT performance, How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less. And they complied with the following statement: “"One aspect of the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium [the larger event] that is garnering negative media attention is, 'How To Be A Lesbian In 10 Days Or Less.' The title of the show, while deliberately provocative, is also part of the comedy. The performance is satirical in nature but has not been received as such. The controversy surrounding this performance has become a distraction to the educational mission of USC Upstate and the overall purpose of the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium. As a result, we have canceled this segment of the symposium." The show, developed at Emerson College and performed at a number of universities and colleges already, is clearly satirical in nature, as the show's website description clearly indicates. Censorship in all forms is dangerous, but particularly when fortified by “political” concerns.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Alternative Budget Plan Ignored by the Media

Yesterday, I briefly outlined the highlights of the new Ryan budget, which garnered considerable media coverage. One alternative that rarely seems to find an audience among the mainstream media is the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Better Off Budget. The group released their more progressive budget for the fourth year running on March 12, to little fanfare (the New Republic). It contains a series of ideas that seem both commonsensical and within the contours of contemporary concerns about economic growth AND the deficit, but while respected economists like Paul Krugman and Dean Baker think it is worthy of consideratio the mainstream media and DC in general seem to disagree. This lack of coverage thus provides further evidence the “liberal media bias” mythology is just that, a mythology.  

The highlights of the budget, include the following:
  • Requires that topline numbers for intelligence activities in each intelligence agency be included in the budget.
  • Attempts to close the “output gap” of $790 billion (reflected in higher unemployment and lower wages) that has persistent since the financial crisis of 2007-08. This is done by investing in infrastructure, state aid and a government jobs program, closing the gap in three years while leading to 8.8 million new jobs. The Obama budget attempts to address the issue to a lesser degree while the Ryan budget completely ignores it.
  • Calls for higher taxes on the highest earners and corporations, earning $6 trillion in additional revenue over the next decade, and thus addressing concerns over the deficit and long term debt.
  • Overall, it would reduce the deficit to 1.4% of GDP by 2024, even though it focuses more on jobs than the deficit and increasing demand by pushing money toward those who need it.

When presented to the average American, the budget has strong mainstream support, but it appears to be outside the specter of popular discourses on the economy today. The question every American should be asking is why?

Paul Ryan: Modern Day Faustian Antihero

Faust, bored with his life as a highly successful scholar, tried to fool the devil, selling his soul for for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  He thought he could fool the devil but, at least in some versions of the story, pays the ultimate price for his trickery and valuing of human life of the divine. Paul Ryan sells himself as a no-nonsense “realist” who is simply trying to cut the deficit and improve the economy over time. But what is he really doing? Looking at his latest budget, one could argue he is instead doing the devil’s work (or at least the Koch brothers), in the guise of providing a “Path to Prosperity.” Let’s let a look at the lowlights …

  • Focuses most of its cuts on programs serving children and families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 69 percent of the Ryan budget’s cuts to non-defense programs over the next decade would come from programs that serve low-income children, families and individuals including Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, school lunches and other child nutrition programs.
  • Takes food and medicine from babies to give tax breaks to the rich and corporations. The Ryan budget slashes the top income tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, and reduces the corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent with no way of paying for it. Meanwhile, the budget proposes cutting food stamps by 18 percent over the next decade and cuts Medicaid by $1.5 trillion over 10 years and would effectively eliminate the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the only health insurance program specifically for children.
  • Pushes college further out of reach for low-income students. The budget proposes cutting Pell grants by more than $125 billion over the next decade, freezing the maximum grant for students even as tuition continues to increase.  
What a humanitarian!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Believing is Seeing

The documentarian Errol Morris released a book Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mystery of Photography back in 2011 that had an interesting premise – we don’t so much believe what we see as see through the lens of what we already believe. In other words, related to the concept of confirmation bias, we tend to view the world based on the beliefs, values and ideals we already hold. We don’t look at the world innocently, or even scientifically, as much as we look at the world to confirm what we already believe. Now taking this premise to its ultimate conclusion, things would never change – and this is, of course, the problem with any deterministic theory of the world. Yet as an important starting point for any analysis of viewing practices, it is quite informative.

And it turns out that that this is also often the case when it comes to political decision-making and analysis. Most people don’t look for evidence to determine whether what they believe is true or not, nor evidence that supports their position – they instead look at all evidence through the lenses of what they already believe. Ezra Klein wrote an interesting article on this topic in his new vehicle, How Politics Makes Us Stupid. The article starts with the “More Information Hypothesis,” that exists across the political landscape in America – claiming that people would change their beliefs and political affiliation is only they had access to different information. This is, of course, a popular premise among liberals and leftists (I remember Bill Clinton once saying on Jon Stewart that everyone would be democrats if they just thought) who believe that their ethical position is somehow always supported by empirical facts, but equally by the right – where they constantly decry the “fact” that the mainstream media ignores their voice (an absurd claim, as I’ve argued on numerous occassions in the past) in lieu of its “liberal bias.”

However, recent research suggests that the more information hypothesis is actually backwards, and that the more information we have, the more likely we are to disagree. Dan Kahan at Yale in concert with his coauthors conducted a series of experiments that provided evidence that our inherent biases lead us toward particular conclusions, no matter what the facts or experts tell us. This is most obviously the case with global warming, where those who don’t believe in it simply ignore all the inconvenient facts and consensus around them in the hopes of “winning the argument.” But the authors also found this to be true among liberals, when confronted with data that suggested gun control laws did not lower crime rates in some cities.

Klein then engages in a provacative thought experiment – what if Sean Hannity announced tomorrow on his show that global warming is the greatest threat confronting the world today. Would his viewers simply change their position and thank him for his honest reappraisal of the facts? Of course not. Hate mail and calls would flood into Fox and he might soon find himself on the outside looking in. Liberals would congralute him for finally coming to his senses and he would be embraced in their fold, forgiven for all his past wrongs. And someone else would take his place to fill the void of repeating the same “facts” he had since abandoned. And, to be fair, this is the case across the political spectrum, with many of those hated neocons old socialists of the 50s and 60s who turned against a movement they saw as backing the wrong horse. The point is that we live an increasingly narrow and insular political world, where people hold steadfast to their beliefs no matter what the facts may tell us, no matter how the world is changing and no matter how absurd their position might seem to others. And all this is made easier by the ready availability of conforting and confirming voices across the wondrous spectacle new technology provides.

One thought I would add to this debate is about what happens when confronted with confounding information in general, paricularly when it relates to deeply held beliefs. If we don’t care much about an issue, then we might say “really?” and “I need to check on that,” or simply accept that we have been wrong about something that doesn’t matter to us anyway. But when we are confronted with a compelling argument against our deeply-held beliefs, say about racism, sexism, capitalism, climate change or abortion, we often become defensive as an immediate response. I have experienced that for years in my classrooms, where students can respond rather violently to having their beliefs challenged. But what I have also found is a tendency to later consider those alternative arguments and sometimes completely change their minds. Sure there are the ideologues among these students, whose ideas couldn’t be change even on threat of death; but I have found them to be in the minority. More often, the presumed authority of a professor can disrupt the echo chambers that dominate political discourse today.

And this ability to question ones deeply held beliefs is really at the center of the march of history. Democracy was not a commonly held notion when it first sprouted anew in America and France. Yet it was quickly embraced by many and led to a sea change that slowly spread across Europe and later, much of the world. The idea that slavery was wrong certainly occurred to many right from the start, but over time the ideas of many changed and the necessary evil argument had to be supplanted by the God’s will, benign institution and innate inferiority and danger arguments. Ultimately, the faulty reasoning behind each came into glaring repose and historical circumstances converged in a way that engineered its final death knell. The same can be said of colonialism, women’s rights, birth control and hundreds of other ideas we take as conventional wisdom today (except among the retrograde conservatives attempting to push the clock back, of course.)

But the point is that it appears those defensive impulses hold firmer today and strict adherence to whatever beliefs you have received more firmly ensconced than ever before. Sure, it makes sense that we would employ our intellect (or “reason”) to attack threatening information, but it used to be the case that our intellects would sometimes get in the way and tell us we were ultimately wrong. Less of that is going on today and that holds great dangers for our collective future. For if we cannot see or perceive the world outside the specter of what we believe, then we are forever trapped in a past that recedes further and further from the truth and the future, making all that we hold to be true less relevant from day to day.  

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Time for Wenger to Go (Everton 3 Arsenal 0)

The time has finally come for Arsenal to say goodbye to Arsene Wenger, hopefully with the dignity of an FA Cup and a hearty thank you to soften the blow of eight years of futility. Sure Wenger has kept the team in the top four for sixteen years, won 7 trophies and overseen the lean years following the move to the Emirates. But how much longer do we have to live on these laurels from the increasingly distant past? How long can we survive his excuses and lies? How many more years can the team continue performing for only a half or two thirds of a season? Arsenal fans have had enough and it’s time to look for a new start, maybe with the very manager who so thoroughly outcoached him today.

Roberto Martinez came into the game today at Goodison Park with a bold plan. Cede possession to Arsenal, but play three up front and counter quickly through the wings. And it paid off in spectacular fashion, with a 3-0 win in a game that could propel Everton to the top four and end Wenger’s only remaining record of note (the sixteen straight years in the Champions League for those with bad short-term memory). The Gunners, on the other hand, played too open a game, were too mistake prone and predictable and looked shambolic for large stretches of the first half. And so it was little surprise when the Toffees took the lead in the 14th minute, on a brilliant pass forward from Baines that left Lukaku one-on-one with Monreal. The Belgian had his shot well saved by Szczesny, but an unmarked Naismath followed the rebound and cooly slotted it in the near post. The second came in the 34th when Arteta gave the ball up in midfield, leading to a counter that found Lukaku on the edge of the box. He slalomed past four stationary Gunner defenders, including the awful Vermaelen and poor Monreal, before pounding it into the far corner.

Suddenly it was 2-0 and Arsenal looked out of it already. Podolski almost opened the account for the away team five minutes later with a lovely taken rebound shot, well saved by Howard, but that was all the Gunners could muster before halftime. At the end of the half, Arsenal had 61 percent of the possession but trailed in shot 7-2 and goals 2-0. The second half started much as the first had ended, with Arsenal bossing possession but with little creativity or forward momentum. In the 60th minute, Everton put the game away with a third as Sagna lost the ball to Mirallas who launched it forward to Nasimath. Szczesny saved well again, but a charging Arteta pushed it into his own net as Mirallas rushed behind him.

It was a pathetic effort against the top seven again and finalized yet another season of futility in big games that even puts doubts on what should have been a relatively easy two-game path to the FA cup. Just to sum it all up in number form: Arsenal are winless in their last four, have won only 3 of their last 11, have won only three games against the top seven all season (with two early on and a third against Spurs on the road last month), have lost four of these games away in embarrassing fashion (6-3 to City, 5-1 to Liverpool, 6-0 to Chelsea and now 3-0 to Everton), drawn three at home (two 0-0 draws against Chelsea and United and the 1-1 against City last weekend) and have moved from leading the league for 151 days to struggling to remain in fourth. And that final place is now beyond their control, as they have a one point lead over Everton (who have won six straight) with one less game to play.

Looking at the game, there are a number of critiques that essentially summarize why Wenger must go:

Injuries: With the continued absence of Walcott, Ozil, Wilshere, Koscielny, et al, Arsenal lacked any inventiveness until Ramsey and Ox came in in the 60th minute.

Selection: Why Arteta and Flamini continue to play side by side is beyond me, as they have a rather terrible record of accruing points this year. One thinks that we would have been better served with Ox over Arteta (who had a terrible game) followed by Ramsey subbing in late. Or what of Gnarby, who hasn’t played in months? It is not completely Wenger’s fault that the team now lacks pace, but failing to include any of the available pace is reckless endangerment.  

Transfer Record: The two biggest problems today, however, were the continued decline in quality of Giroud and the awful positioning by Vermaelen, who forgot how to play the position the moment he received the captain’s band almost two full seasons ago. The failure to sign a second striker and defensive cover are old stories, but I think they both are key to the late collapse that continues to hound the Frenchman. And one can also ask whether more DM cover was necessary, as Arteta’s level appears to decline. Sure, we did sign some Swedish cat, but he has been injured ever since!

Just to highlight Giroud’s low lights: 21st minute: nice cross from Sagna untouched by an onrushing Giroud, 27: cross blocked, 29: heads out of bounds (4th lost ball already), 32: misses good chance in front of goal on corner, 41: loses ball in box, 42: gives ball up in own half, 45: gives ball up on edge of box, 47: Howard beats him to ball in front of goal, 50: Pod on break, but no Giroud in sight, 53: Chance to score, but misses ball, 58: loses ball again, 64: tries to cut in from corner of box and loses ball

Tactical Stubbornness: Wenger has been playing open games on the road all year, and this has cost us against City, Liverpool, Chelsea and now Everton, with mistakes and counters having us out of games in the first 10 minutes, if not first half, since December. It’s hard to understand what happened to the tough defensive team that dominated the EPL throughout 2013, but one thing is a lack of discipline in positioning and a dramatic increase in the sort of errors that have plagued the Gunners for years. Yet Wenger refuses to change, even as his tactics continue to fail, and it’s really time to find someone with the necessary flexibility that we see in a Martinez or Rodgers.

Record of Failure: It is well known that Wenger has failed to win a trophy in eight long seasons, and I highlighted his many failures in a previous post. But it is his record in big games since the 2006 Champion’s League final that must be studied with a microscope. Not only is it too many failures on the biggest stage, but the nature of those failures, from dropping a four goal lead against Newcastle that started a decline a few years back, to the Laurel and Hardy goal that cost them a Carling Cup to the pathetic record the past two months in games against quality opponents. Wenger just can’t seem to motivate or prepare his team for the long campaign each season demands – and it’s time to give someone else a chance to change that.

Many Wenger supporters will point to available funds, to bad luck, to injuries or his record the first eight years in charge. But enough of that already – sports is a game that demands winning and Arsenal have the talent to win substantially more often than they do. Change is needed, and it is needed now (at the end of the season, of course)!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Is the U.S. the Greatest Country on Earth?

I’ve always enjoyed this clip from the first episode of the HBO series The Newsroom, which provides a pretty strong response to those who believe the U.S. is still the greatest country in the world. Nicholas Kristof wrote an interesting Op Ed in the New York Times Wednesday, that provided further evidence toward that rather risque proclamation in a country that loves the “love it or leave it” mantra. In fact it appears that we are falling behind those annoying “socialist” countries in quality of life and economic development. The data on the United States, which comes from the Social Progress Index, speaks for itself …

  • Ranks 16th overall in the ratings behind New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands,  Norway, Sweden,  Canada, Finland, Denmark, Australia, Austria, Germany, UK, Japan, Ireland.
  • 70th in health
  • 69th in ecosystem sustainability
  • 39th in basic education
  • 34th in access to water and sanitation
  • 31st in personal safety
  • The U.S. economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006 but 99% of the French population enjoyed more gains in that period than 99 percent of Americans.

Any questions, beyond how do we fix this?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

SCOTUS Reaffirms Disdain for Democracy

In good news for big business and conservatives and bad news for democracy, the Supreme Court has again sided with the rich over democracy – in this case by eliminating the overall limit on what individuals can contribute to individual campaigns. (NY Times) Following in the footsteps of the Citizens United decision of 2010, a 5-4 majority decided in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536  to stike down a decade-long limit on individual contributions to candidates. The reason? The conflating of the first amendment with spending money has been the legal legitimation of undercutting democracy for several years now. But the real reason is to ensure that the pesky will of the people not interfere with the interests of corporations and the elite.

And the results have been largely positive, except at the Presidential level the past two cycles. The Koch brothers have sold America a “populist” movement that was secretly and largely sponsored by their $50 billion plus  fortune. Right wing media sells the “silent majority” their racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic messages of hate. And the dollars behind the machine so outstrip those of their opponents that the Senate might actually turn because the GOP is really good at ensuring that nothing of note happens whenever a “liberal” is in the highest office in the land. It is an extraordinary strategy and one that is sure to continue the slow but steady decline of America as an economic and political superpower, the land of opportunity and a “beacon for democracy.” Ironically, as with the Tea Party movement itself – the very people voting with this “silent money” will be destroying the very thing they so rapidly support. Go America! No, serious … go!