Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Death of the Honest Businessman | Articles | Bill James Online

Bill James made his bones as a pioneer in the field of sabremetrics, the analysis of baseball statistics that threatens to drown us all. James's gift was not in his analysis of the stats--which was, and is, formidable--but in how he wrote up the analysis. Always entertaining, James broke ground where no one has really followed, detailed analysis described by exceptional writing. Those who may be better number crunchers can't write half as well; those who can write at his level can't handle the level of statistical detail.

He has his own website now, full of baseball analysis, but with other stuff, too. He's written a true crime book that focuses on crimes that caught popular attention, that has been well received. (Full disclosure: I haven't got to it yet, but I will.) He also goes off on tangents, sometimes political, that are always worth reading. Today he posted an article on "The Death of the Honest Businessman" that shows the same logic that makes his baseball analysis worth reading.

The article also touches on a few political hot buttons, notably red light camera and closing small post office. All can be read at the link below, but what interests me most here is his juxtaposition of common rhetoric versus what actually happens.

James writes:

Also as many of you know, I’m prone to rant about red-light cameras. Here’s a link to an extremely good article on the subject:

Having endorsed the article enthusiastically—I think this may be the first time I have used this platform to link to somebody else’s article—I now need to back away from it a little bit in several directions. The article says that "governments initially justified them under the rubric of public safety—the cameras were supposed to make intersections safer. . .but the fig leaf of safety frittered away as study after study showed that the cameras made little difference and in some cases actually made intersections less safe. Drivers, knowing cameras were watching, tended to jam on their brakes suddenly at yellow lights, causing accidents." I would prefer to believe that that’s true, and intuitively I have known from the first moment I heard of a red light camera that businessmen would promote them by doing specious studies that heroically overstated the safety value of their product, but by the same rough skepticism, I know that people who write polemics very often say things like "study after study has shown" no matter how muddled the evidence actually is.

The more serious issue is that parts of the article are stated in right-wing cant that is likely to drive a wedge between Red-Light camera opponents and those who should be our strongest allies. The article talks about Red Light cameras as a further intrusion of the Nanny State into our daily lives, which is code to portray Red-Light cameras as being foisted on the population from the left. The reality is that it isbusinessmen who are selling these things, in league with avaricious local politicians. In the 1980s, when businesses got a toehold running private prisons on contract from the government, who was it that took the lead in opposing that? It was, of course, the left.

Well, this is the same thing, isn’t it? It’s turning over a police function to private business—and it should be opposed on those grounds; police powers cannot be delegated to people who could misuse them to generate income. There is too much opportunity for abuse, and businessmen are not universally ethical. The real problem with Red Light cameras is not that they don’t promote safety—for all I actually know, they may promote safety—it is that they create a profound confusion between the goals of public safety and the pursuit of wealth.

Also in the 1980s, there was a period in which it was a popular idea that police should seize items used in a crime and sell them to raise money for police departments. A more terrifying concept would be difficult to come up with—and who was it that took the lead in opposing this? It was, again, the left—and these policies were in due course prohibited by the courts as a threat to civil liberties.

Well, this is the same thing, isn’t it? It creates the same terrifying confusion between what is being done in the broad interests of the public and what is being done in the financial interests of the state, thus allowing the government to shake money out of your pockets on the pretense that they are legitimately punishing you for violating laws that you never had the slightest intention of violating.

Governments should be fanatically careful as to when they punish and who they punish. A wise father does not indiscriminately punish his children. Educated and sophisticated people know that punishments backfire frequently and at a high cost. This is careless and indiscriminate punishment. It is both stupid and immoral, and we need to put a definite stop to it.

Read the entire article here, or by using the link below. It's worth your time, no matter which side of the political fence you're on.

The Death of the Honest Businessman | Articles | Bill James Online

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