Friday, August 31, 2007

Gregg Easterbrook Should Stick to Football

I like Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column quite a bit. He's a smart guy, he watches a lot of football, he usually makes a pretty good case for his point of view. It's also true that he advocates a style of football play that, if every team adopted it, would make the game really boring; but since that's not likely to happen, and the teams that do run well and often and make fewer mistakes win more often, I can't really hold it against him.

On the other hand, he frequently interrupts his column to comment on non-football related matters, and here he gets himself into trouble. A few years back the column was booted from ESPN after Easterbrook wrote an
ill-advised rant in The New Republic about the high incidence of violence in movies that an uncharitable reader could have understood to be a complaint about all the Jews in Hollywood:

"Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice. But history is hardly the only concern. Films made in Hollywood are now shown all over the world, to audiences that may not understand the dialogue or even look at the subtitles, but can't possibly miss the message--now Disney's message--that hearing the screams of the innocent is a really fun way to express yourself."

I don't think he meant anything more than "It's really strange that people who were threatened with genocidal violence 60 years ago should now be making money selling depictions of violence to other people today." It's still, I think, a weird argument (to really work, the Weinsteins et al. would have to be committing actual genocidal-type violence on other people, which ... they're not. Or he'd have to support the argument that filmed depictions of violence lead to the real thing, but ... they don't), but I don't think it was anti-Semitic, particularly given the fact that Easterbrook regularly gets a bee in his bonnet about mass-media depictions of violence (because he really does think that the depictions lead to the real thing). Still, it's the kind of thing that it's easy to misread. In that case, the misreading led to the (temporary) loss of one of his jobs.

He's also posted some daffy articles on science-related issues, such as
evolution, global warming, and string theory. This week's TMQ contains (among other things) his NFC preview, which is interesting; a somewhat odd take on the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal (which I'll be getting around to in a bit); and a very strange mini-rant about how the various acts that performed at the Live Earth concerts are a bunch of lousy hypocrites:

Madonna, Sting join hands to demand that others do what they will not

In July, numerous pop musicians and celebrities flew in private jets, then rode limos to the Live Earth concerts, where they demanded that others conserve. Some 150 acts performed at the event's various venues. Suppose half the acts flew commercial, half aboard private jets. Flying a private jet a transcontinental distance generates greenhouse gases equivalent to driving a Hummer for a year. So that's 75 Hummer Years of greenhouse gases caused by the Live Earth acts that arrived by private jet. (TMQ proposes that henceforth, environmental hypocrisy be measured in Hummer Years.)

If the other acts flew commercial, assuming the average act has five performers and crew and flies a medium distance, that would translate to about 550 tons of greenhouse gases, which is another 60 Hummer Years of global-warming emissions. Now factor in all the spectators and staff attending the various Live Earth concerts. John Buckley of estimated that around 35,000 tons of greenhouse gases were caused by spectators and logistical support for Live Earth -- converted into HYs, that's about the same as driving a Hummer for 4,000 years. Four thousand years' worth of Hummer emissions for an event demanding conservation! And we're just talking about one day of screeching guitars and slurred lyrics, not about the many pop stars who live the private jet lifestyle the year long. As Marina Hyde of London's Guardian newspaper pointed out, Sting's wife recently charted a helicopter to fly her to an environmental meeting.

It's absolutely true that jets and trucks and tour buses all generate a whole lot of carbon. It's also true that the idea of using a helicopter to fly to an environmental meeting is pretty dumb, since helicopters are among the least energy-efficient ways to get anywhere. And Easterbrook might have a point if (1) absent the Live Earth concerts, nobody involved would be using them, or (2) there was some significantly more energy-efficient way for the people involved to get there. But neither of those things are true.

First, all the people performing are famous professional musicians. Their business is pretty much playing concerts. The odds that many or most of them would not be performing absent the Live Earth concert hover somewhere between "slim" and "none." All that Live Earth did was arrange for them to be performing at more or less the same time. The concert itself is extremely unlikely to have generated any extra emissions that wouldn't have been generated anyway. The same goes for the audience; whether or not you chose to drive or fly to the concert, you'd probably still be driving around running errands or having fun somewhere else. The planes people flew to get there - to the extent that the audience was flying commercial - would have been flying whether or not those particular people were on those particular flights.

Second, the fact is that rock concerts and famous musicians require some logistical arrangements that are going to use up a lot of energy. Stacks of amps don't move themselves. It's amusing to imagine the Rolling Stones taking the bus to a show, but it's not really practical. So apparently Easterbrook thinks that either we shouldn't have rock concerts at all, because all of the emissions they produce are wicked bad for the environment; or that rock stars shouldn't use their fame to encourage people to take more care of the environment, which doesn't really seem to help much. If the acts that performed at Live Earth could haul all the stuff they need around in a chariot powered by unicorns and pixie dust that actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on the way, that'd be swell, but as far as I know, not even Sting has one. It's fun to point out the hypocrisies of the rich and famous (David Crosby's liver transplants are an evergreen source of amusement), but this doesn't seem like a very good example of it.

His Michael Vick bit is interesting because he points out what relatively few people have, which is that we do worse than what Vick was accused of all the damn time. To wit:

"Thousands of animals are mistreated or killed in the United States every day without the killers so much as being criticized, let alone imprisoned. Ranchers and farmers kill stock animals or horses that are sick or injured. Some ranchers kill stock animals as gently as possible, others callously; in either case, prosecution is nearly unheard of. As Derek Jackson pointed out last week in the Boston Globe, greyhound tracks routinely race dogs to exhaustion and injury, then kill the losers, or simply eliminate less-strong pups: "184,604 greyhound puppies judged to be inferior for racing" were killed, legally, in the past 20 years."


"Much more troubling is that the overwhelming majority of Americans who eat meat and poultry -- I'm enthusiastically among them -- are complicit in the systematic cruel treatment of huge numbers of animals. Snickering about this, or saying you're tired of hearing about it, doesn't make it go away. Most animals used for meat experience miserable lives under cruel conditions, including confinement for extended periods in pits of excrement. (Michael Pollan, who enthusiastically consumes meat and fowl, describes the mistreatment in his important new book The Omnivore's Dilemma.) Meat animals don't magically stop living when it's time to become a product; they suffer as they die. One of Vick's dogs was shot, another electrocuted. Gunshots and electrocution are federally approved methods of livestock slaughter, sanctioned by the Department of Agriculture for the killing of cows and pigs. Regulations under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 give federal sanction to shooting cows or pigs, or running electrical current through their bodies. Shooting and electrocution are viewed by federal law as humane ways to kill animals that will be consumed. Federal rules also allow slaughterhouses to hit cows in the head with a fast-moving piston that stuns them into semiconsciousness before they are sliced up. Being hit in the head with a powerful piston -- does that sound a bit painful, a bit cruel? It's done to tens of thousands of steers per year, lawfully."

As a vegetarian myself, I feel uncomfortable telling people this kind of thing, because I think it sounds a bit like an ex-smoker telling his still-smoking friends how bad cigarettes are for you. They already know that! They don't care! Still, there is a double standard in play here. Cockfighting was legal in New Mexico and Louisiana until quite recently, and it's hard to see how Vick's dogfighting was so much worse than that. My point is not "Eh, it wasn't so bad." Rather, we should think more seriously than we do about why we think it's OK to let cattlemen electrocute steers, but we're morally appalled when Vick does the same to a dog.

Then he makes a strange argument regarding Vick's punishment:

"Legal note: Vick might be compelled to repay the Falcons a huge amount of bonus
money, and will lose $25 million or more in endorsement income. I have no sympathy for his loss of endorsement income: Vick was hired to bring Nike and other companies he endorsed good publicity, and instead brought them bad."

Yep. He probably should have thought about that while he was setting up the rape stand in the basement. Or, better, before that.

"But think about the income loss in the calculation of overpunishment of Vick. One or two years in federal prison, and perhaps state prison time if state charges are filed as well; plus $25 million in lost endorsement income and, oh, $50 million in lost or returned NFL income."
But, dude. It's not "overpunishment" if the court isn't imposing the penalty. Strictly speaking, it's not punishment at all. Losing all that was a risk he chose to run. If I do something stupid and wind up doing a stretch in prison, the court isn't going to care about the loss of my job and income; I should have thought of that before I did something stupid.

"That's overkill! Often the indirect financial consequences of legal proceedings are worse than the official ones, in the same way that a speeding ticket might cost you $75 but add $1,000 to your annual insurance bill."
It's only "overkill" because Vick was already making a whole lot of money. Money that in fact enabled him to engage in this criminal activity in the first place. It's true that the indirect consequences are sometimes a bigger problem than the official penalties; that's something potential criminals might well keep in mind before they start illegal dogfighting operations out of their basement. As an example.

"In effect, the federal indictment of Vick is resulting in him being fined around $75 million, which is far too much retribution. The legal hang-up is that since 1984, federal courts have been forbidden to consider monetary loss in private life as counting toward punishment. But a year of banishment from the NFL, a guilty plea with suspended sentence and probation (meaning the sentence is imposed if probation is violated), seems plenty of punishment for a first offense by someone who has not harmed another human being. Prison time and a $75 million fine? What Vick did was indecent, but now excessive punishment is being imposed, and two wrongs do not equal one right. Justice, after all, must be tempered with mercy. That's what you would think if you stood in the dock accused."
This is ridiculous from start to finish. What Easterbrook describes as a "legal hang-up" is a rule designed to ensure that the rich and the poor get about the same treatment for the same crimes. If we took into account "monetary loss in private life" as part of punishment, wealthy people - who have more to lose - would be sentenced to milder punishments than poor people for the same crimes. They would "in effect" be buying their way out of jail time.

And let's consider that $75 million. Easterbrook says he has "no sympathy" for the loss of endorsement income, so he's either contradicting himself just one paragraph later, or he thinks that Nike et al. should pony up the cash despite the fact that a new "Bad Newz" footwear line would go over like Larry Craig at the Boise Rotary Club. The $50 million he got from the Falcons - note that some of that was salary he'd earn for playing in games, which he's not going to be doing thanks to his extended stay in prison - was subject to a "personal behavior" clause, as pretty much all pro sports contracts are these days. If he didn't know that he'd be forfeiting that money if he got caught, he should read his contracts more carefully in the future. Easterbrook apparently thinks Vick should be getting paid while in prison for work he can't do, some of which Easterbook agrees he shouldn't be entitled to.

Let's also pause to wonder why the loss of $75 million is "too much." Easterbrook never really says, but I suspect that it's just because that's a whole lot of money. The fact that Vick was in a privileged position to begin with is the only reason why he has that much to lose, though. If I "were in the dock accused" (and let's remember, because Easterbrook does not, that Vick pled guilty to the dogfighting charges, so there's no presumption of innocence at work here), I would not lose $75 million, because I never had the opportunity to earn that kind of money. I would have thought that having that kind of money to lose would make a pro athlete more circumspect than Vick was in choosing his hobbies, but apparently not.

Long answer: Gregg Easterbrook should stick to writing about football games.


Bob the Bob said...

Well done again, brother. Boise Rotary Club = priceless. Keep on posting!

JJ said...

Good blog, Dark Knight.

I read something, somewhere, maybe, that claimed Vick's contract was worded such that his 'signing bonus' was a 'roster bonus'. He was in fact on the roster when he received the bonus a couple of seasons ago. He didn't get the bonus when he signed, he got it at the start of the season when teams make the final cut down.

It may be difficult for the Falcons to get that money back.

Vick has good attorneys, I'd wager.

And we all know how attorneys can be...

Anonymous said...

Being vegitarian sort of begs the question, doesn't it... What is the "best" way to die? I mean, if you are a vegetable or not. I heard this from a rutabaga once, no wait it was a turnip. The answer, in case you haven't figured it out at your ages, is apparently "quickly" or "in your sleep peacefully".

The fact that we still practice human sacrifice (meaning the slaughter of "innocent" humans in the judicial system is purty f__ked up and speaks to our inescapable primitivism. Football seconds the motion. But is still good for the sublimation of our war-like tendancies as I've pointed out elsewhere. Ergo were all apey monkey childs. QED.) is purty messed up. Damned by that Agamemnon and his ilke. "Don't think twice its alright."

Fortunately or unfortunately if you have ever killed an animal or been present at the killing of an animal, either for meat (food), "fun" (i.e. stupidity), or for "sacrifice" and it was quiet enough and/or ritualized enough you'd know what is at "steak". gufaw!

Next time I'll tell you my joke about the cowboy from california and the cowboy from texasshats.

-Mr. Nocabrepyh