Friday, October 17, 2008

Because Everyone Has To Be On Someone's Team, Right?

It seems that no one can get enough of the baseball-as-politics-as-baseball metaphor these days. And why should they? These are perhaps two of the greatest of American traditions, and they give citizens of all class and creed a chance to come together, wear silly hats, shout slogans, and vilify one another for more-or-less arbitrary reasons.

Red Sox Yankees Suck Value T-shirt

But the similarities don't end at mere bigotry, demagoguery, and name-calling. Both baseball and politics involve an obsessively complex system of numbers and statistics that people can - and do - spend their entire lives dissecting and analyzing. Nate Silver has taken this affinity to a new level with his website Silver, an alum of the University of Chicago, created a highly effective way for predicting baseball outcomes based on very specific statistics. This year, he has applied this same system to the political process, and the results are both fascinating and good (for Obama - Silver's latest data shows/ says... shows.... no... pre-dicts... sorry, where was I? Oh, gives Obama a 94.7% chance of winning the Election. This means that Silver's software has simulated the election 10,000 times and, based on data collected from hundreds of different polls, Obama has won in 9,470 of those simulations. Of course, I look at this stat and all my monkey brain thinks is, "So McCain can still win?")

As Silver says in an article in Newsweek:
"Baseball and politics are data-driven," ... "But a lot of the time, that data might be used badly. In baseball, that may mean looking at a statistic like batting average when things like on-base percentage and slugging percentage are far more correlated with winning ballgames. In politics, that might mean cherry-picking a certain polling result." In other words, different sport—same skill set.

Henry James once said,"Cats and monkeys; monkeys and cats; all human life is there." So when your monkey brain looks at Silver's data and starts to get all hurty and angry and just wants to get back to the social grooming, it's probably time for your cat brain to take over and demand that the numbers give you something. Preferably something edible. Or something that can be exchanged for goods and services. That are edible.

Enter, a website where you can bet on which candidate will win invest in a candidate. Right now, Obama is "trading" at 83.9, meaning that you can "invest" $83.90 in Obama right now, and if he wins the election, you get $100. John McCain is trading at 16.8. But that's not all! You can also put down money on whether or not the U.S. will go into a recession (the "market" says yes) or whether or not another hurricane will make landfall this year! (Probably not - better luck next time, all you venture capitalists.)

So, yes, betting on the fortunes of others. As American as mom, apple pie, and union busting.

But aren't I being a bit callous here? I mean, Major League Baseball may be a $4 Billion a year business, but it's a chance to identify with the trials and triumphs of your fellow human being first, dammit! And you know who else loves identifying with your fellow human beings? Politicians. And it's not just by talking baseball either; pretty much anything involving competition and gambling will do:

But it can be a dangerous game, this "identifying" with people, for a politician not versed in the fine points of pandering. Because even if being a baseball fan means that you identify yourself with and emotionally (and financially) invest yourself in the fortunes of a group of nine strangers who happen to all be employed by the same company that is near your geographical location, it is still an identity not to be taken lightly. And just as this identity can be politically exploited to make you seem more "human", it can also burn you if you get your signals crossed and end up coming across as, shall we say, a little less than authentic.

Especially if your name is Sarah Palin and you are in the heart of Red Sox Nation.

P.S. - Speaking of monkey brains.

P.P.S. -


jim v said...

Is baseball that game that players dribble the ball into the end zone while wearing ice skates? I would like to see a world series with the Cowboys and the Trailblazers. Perhaps I should get out more often.

Joel said...

I am so excited about the Blazers this year.