Monday, August 27, 2012

On eve of the Republican National Convention. a question... Is voting for president worth your time? Heresy here, but don't just vote on reflex. It may make just as much sense to vote on "America's Got Talent..."


That’s the mantra of newspaper editors, civics teachers, and politicians… if they think they have a majority.

To say otherwise is heresy.

A colleague who always has an eye out of good stuff to share sent me an interesting call for ideas from teachers about how to build the presidential election into their classes and particularly how to get past the “reflex cynicism” of students to voting.

The only problem is, I’m the one with reflex cynicism.

So, here is the heresy. I’m not sure it makes sense to vote for president. Vote for the school board. Vote for bond issues and on referendum questions, for councilmen and mayor, and for governor. Those votes, the “lower” they get, will have the most to do with the quality of your life. Those are important votes and to stay home from those votes is irresponsible.

But investing a lot of time and energy in following a presidential election may not be as valuable. This is coming from a guy who has written James Brown into the slot for president more than once rather than vote for one of the two major party contenders.

The irony here is uncomfortably deep. With a great friend and colleague,  I’m in the midst of teaching a course on this presidential election in real time. What’s funky is that our own reflex to cynicism is exactly what he and I spent the first day talking with students about in class. We just told them that together we're not sure any of this really matters. We raised our own doubts.

I mean, think about it. We've been at war now through two presidencies, two election cycles. If you go back to Bush I, we've had four elections cycles and we were at war in three of the four. That's what? 24 years? And the polls don't show overwhelming support among the electorate for all that warfare. It’s apparent the forces that compel us to war have little to do with who is president. I seem to remember Lyndon Johnson handing off the war in Vietnam flawlessly to Richard Nixon. Perhaps Ike was onto something.

In class that first day we focused on an important understanding in political science. The American system is designed not for radical change, or even steady change, but for incremental change at best and maintenance of the status-quo at worst. Presidential elections don't really change much. They tend to put on a great show, but when they're over, it's really "meet the new boss same as the old boss..." except for elections in a few really dramatic times.

This is complicated by what Theodore Lowi described three decades ago as "The End of Liberalism." Part of his argument was that Congress discovered how to be reelected without voting on policy or taking much more than symbolic stands on issues. They figured out the mechanisms of constituent service and public relations. Ask this... When was the last great outpouring of legislation from the American congress? The Great Society of the 1960s. Theory suggested we could expect another great legislative upheaval around 1984, then again around 2000, because major legislative upheaval had historically occurred in roughly 16-year increments.  That’s how long it took the pot to boil and the lid to finally explode. Now, we seem to be locked into a stalemate that may have little to do with party allegiance or boiling pots.

In fact, parties seem to have little to do with elections or governing and may have outlived their usefulness in their current form, anyway. They're more public relations shells than functioning units. They don't raise the money and they don't deliver voters. Candidates do those things. That is way different from parties doing them. When parties held those functions, they could bully winners into doing what the party needed done to support its base. Parties, and their ideologies meant something.

But, on the other hand, my colleague points out that party platforms are actually the best way to predict what winners will do in office. Something on the nature of 90 % of party planks receive action after the election, most becoming law or policy. Yet, how much do voters know about party platforms? Even less now that conventions are scripted and all the platform work is accomplished in obscurity before it happens. This is exacerbated by the diminution of convention coverage to just a few MTV hours.

My wife tells me “America’s Got Talent” won’t even be pre-empted for the Republican National Convention Tuesday. Which is fitting because “America’s Got Talent” will be vastly more suspenseful than the Republican National Convention.

What that means, I'm afraid, is this: All that passes for a presidential election contest will be decent theater and great exercise in the arts of public relations, and make civics teachers and newspaper editors happy beyond words, but have very little to do with a consequential vote on the issues that many will live and die on after the balloons have been set loose on the convention floor this week or in the victorious hotel ballroom Nov. 6.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A million questions about sport and the Olympics, like, do swimmers ever urinate in the water?

With the Olympics concluding and Matt’s last entry on my mind, I’ve been thinking about the nature of sport in our times.

Why not cooking? Or travel? Or gardening? Or cat rearing?

Why sport? Why does sport occupy our minds and our times? Why is it so compelling that we chatter about it all day, listen to other folks chatter about it all day on the radio, listen and watch it all evening on the radio and television, bet on it, collect it, use it as metaphor to explain about every human endeavor?

Why do old farts like me go out to dusty ball fields and play doubleheaders when the temperature is peaking at 103 degrees?

The cat I played third base next to this week illustrated sports' poignancy for me on the bench between innings. He was remembering a father’s day a lifetime ago when he suggested he and his dad celebrate by taking in a Met’s game. His dad said, why don’t we just stay home, put our feet up, listen to the game on the radio and keep a book?

 If you’re a lifelong baseball fan, that story sends a chill up your spine.

My wife, Kathy, who is not a sporting person by any measure, has been glued to the Olympic spectacle. I come in from playing ball evenings and she fills me in on what I’ve missed, complete with absolutely unexpected nuance. Bolt ran well, but he almost shut it down too soon. The divers are missing their entries. When this one archer cocks his brow (not his bow, she says, emphatically when I suggest she might have the wrong word) you know it’s a 10. Too much drama among the gymnasts tonight, had to take a break.

But she also has questions to which I have no answers. Why don’t women compete on the pommel horse? Why is beach volleyball on the screen every 15 minutes? Why aren’t rings part of the men’s all around?

This last is a loaded question which makes me jealous. She finds men on the rings quite compelling in ways I really try not to speculate. Something about the muscles, about being suspended in air…

But then, I’m less adverse to beach volleyball than she is.

She wants to know about those bright track shoes and whether the pool has chlorine like the pools of our childhoods. She wants to know how in the world a person learns to do tricks on the uneven bars in the first place. Like, what happens the first time? How do horses get across the ocean to the Olympics? Do swimmers ever urinate in the pool? What the heck is water polo? Why is basketball a summer Olympic sport?

The answer is that basketball is no longer a winter sport just for gym rats. The NBA season never ends. The NBA now aspires to be the sport for all seasons.

She wants to know why they don’t pole vault indoors where the wind won’t spoil the jumps. And she wants to know why some hurdlers knock down the hurdles but keep running to the finish line while others just limp off the track. She wants to know how a small, gentle looking guy like Rowdy got his name. She wants to know why the women swimmers smile and laugh before their events and the men snarl and pose. She wants to know why Paul McCartney didn’t sing “Imagine” instead of “Hey Jude.”

Of course, I cannot answer even one of those questions. And the main question I can’t answer is why we find sport so compelling. I mean… think about all we have to worry about in this world.

Oops… I think I just answered the question.


Photograph courtesy:  Unfortunately, they don't tell us where they got it so we can properly credit the fine photographer who created the image...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sporting notes

While I'm still struggling with the motivation to write - as evidenced by my lack of posts on this blog recently - I thought one potential way to jump-start my creative flow was to jot down a few thoughts I've had about recent sporting news. No rhyme or reason here. Just word salad. The only thing that ties these thoughts together is that they pertain to sports.

* I'm a bit of an Olympics junkie, and I'm definitely getting my fix this week with numerous NBC-family channels dedicated to the games as well as a tablet app where I can watch all the events live. While I'm in sports heaven, my wife's frustration continues to grow. She hates the Olympics, and although the best events are on in the evenings when we're both together, I try to mix in some cooking shows to keep her engaged. However, she even caught the Team USA bug the other day, and even admitted she enjoyed watching swimming and cheering for Michael Phelps.

* Speaking of Phelps, congratulations to the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.

* Speaking of greatness, congratulations to Serena Williams, this year's tennis singles gold medalist. I have no doubt Serena will be remembered as the greatest, most dominating female athlete of this era.

* I normally don't watch basketball, but it's been awfully fun watching Team USA play. Saturday's 99-94 victory over Lithuania was an old-fashioned nail-biter. And before that, Thursday's record-setting blowout 156-73 win against Nigeria was incredible to see. Earlier in these games, I enjoyed seeing First Lady Michelle Obama congratulate the team after a big win. But my favorite Team USA moment was Tuesday's 110-63 win over Tunisia. You don't see athletes have fun very often, especially in the Olympics. But the Team USA men, each of them millionaires or soon-to-be millionaires, looked like kids at a rec league game on Tuesday. They smiled, clapped and cheered at each big play. And after the game was over, each player gave warm hugs to the completely over-matched opponents from Tunisia, who seemed to revel in defeat at the hands of one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Kobe Bryant even graciously signed an autograph for one of the Tunisian players. That was cool.

* I've heard the commentators mention the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. Although I'm an even bigger fan of the Winter Olympics than the summer games, I have to admit... I had to Google "Sochi" to  figure out it was in Russia. In 2014, prepare yourself for two weeks' worth of Yakov Smirnoff-inspired "In Russia, bobsled rides you!" humor.

* Now to some decidedly non-Olympic athletes: the Kansas City Royals. It's been a rough few weeks for the home team, and it's been hard to cheer for them. But I have to applaud general manager Dayton Moore for the trade that sent Jonathan Broxton to the Reds for minor-league pitchers J.C. Sularban and Donnie Joseph. Broxton put up good numbers for the Royals as the team's closer, but anybody who watched any of those games knows numbers can be deceiving. In exchange for Broxton, the Royals received a Triple A-level relief pitcher and a Double-A starter. Hanley Ramirez, one of the most talented young players in the game (who has, admittedly, underachieved recently), was traded - along with a major league relief pitcher - from the Marlins to the Dodgers for what? A Single-A reliever and a starting pitcher who just broke into the majors this year. By comparison, the haul for Broxton seems downright bountiful.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Congrats to Kietzman... Be surprised. The Royals are in second place behind only the Cleveland Indians

The Royals are in second place.

Believe it or not…

I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t. The Kansas City Star’s enormously hopeful headline today – “Royals Halt Skid…” -- ignores the reality of July in Kansas City. The home nine was as cold as the damn weather was hot. They won just seven games in July. That’s right… seven.

Kevin Kietzman’s surpringly good reporting today revealed some disturbing numbers about how the Royals utilize the tax money they receive from us residents of Jackson County. My Johnson County softball buddies are enjoying a little chuckle over this. One way to look at Kietzman’s numbers is that the Royals use our tax money to pay their taxes.

It’s no surprise, however, 810-am radio did this story instead of the talkers at 610-sports and the gawkers at the Star. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. If you’re interested in how this works, read my post below on the problems inherent in journalism’s beat system.

Kietzman got me thinking after one of my softball teammates on the Kansas City Relics sent 810’s story around in e-mail.  I recall that at one point the professional athletes at the Truman Sports Complex did not pay the dreaded Kansas City 1% E-Tax. Apparently that changed in the early 1990s and today they do provide significant income to the city. It’s complicated, but like those who live in Missouri but work in Kansas get essentially a wash from their Kansas state taxes when they deduct them from their Missouri tax burden, the athletes who also pay taxes in the other states where they play deduct those taxes from their Missouri burden for a wash. The biggest issue for them appears to be the massive paperwork required to accomplish this wash.

So, the reality is, they do pay the 1% E-Tax.  It’s the ball club that, according to Kietzman, pays its taxes with our taxes.

And, that got me thinking about the Royals’ finances. Forbes publishes some numbers, though Major League ballclubs say Forbes is wrong. They don’t, however, release their finances, so their challenge to Forbes is obviously suspect.

If you look at Forbes’ numbers for the Royals you see something stunning. If I’m reading the list right, the Royals are in second place. Yes, second place in operating income, what most of us non-accountants refer to as profit. Only the Cleveland Indians scored more operating income in 2011. The Indians: $30.1 million profit squeezed out the surging Royals’ $28.5 profit.

Twenty-seven teams made less money, according to Forbes.

Here’s an even more surprising number. My non-accountant cell phone calculator shows a profit margin for the Royals of 17.7%. On revenue of $161 million, the Royals made $28.5 million. The average profit margin for Major League Baseball teams was 13%. That is, of course, the only place the Royals’ winning percentage is anywhere near .500. Apple’s profit margin was 22%. According to a New York Daily News apology for the oil industry, the average profit margin for the five largest oil companies from 2006 to 2010 was just 6.5%.

The Royals were, apparently, champions at squeezing profit out of one of the worst, if not the worst, professional baseball clubs in the world.

And this is where the brain trust of the home nine show the greatest improvement. In 2008, the Royals netted only $9 million on total revenue of $143 million, according to the Forbes list. That's just a 6% return on investment, if my cell phone is right. And, in 2008, only six teams had less income and only six teams paid less than the Royals' $83 million for players. That's squeezing blood out of a pretty profitable little turnip.

Return on investment? David Glass bought the franchise for $96 million in 2000. Forbes says it is worth $354 million today. My cell phone says that's a 368% return on investment. Now, $354 million is a long way from the Yankees' $1.85 billion estimated value, but a return on investment in the three-fold-plus neighborhood is nothing to sneeze at especially when you can do it without ever fielding anything close to a competitive team. Since the 2000 season, the Royals have won 810 games, not counting this season, an average of just 67.5 wins per year. They have only one winning season, 2003, when they won 83 games. They have won less than 70 games eight of the 12 seasons and less than 60 games twice.

--Lofflin, posting this with a sincere question: Can this be possible? Did I miss a decimal point? Somebody show me what I’m missing here…