Evicted.

I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

The Blue Sweater.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of a non-profit called Acumen, which funds and encourages poverty-reduction efforts that work like business endeavors rather than aid dumps. Foreign aid itself is, in general, not very useful, and often nothing more than a way to prop up corrupt third-world regimes; the U.S. is slated to send out $42 billion in foreign aid in FY2017, but there’s little to no information on how well it works – something like an ROI, for eample. Novogratz has spent over three decades working in the developing world, including substantial time in Rwanda both before and after that country’s civil war and genocide, and her 2009 memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, chronicles some of her work – but also has an unfortunate tendency to show her inability to escape her own privilege when describing the people she’s met and places where she’s worked.

The book works as part memoir – Novogratz has lived an incredible life, not least of which is the incredible story of the titular sweater, which she gave away to a donation outlet while in high school only to find a boy wearing the sweater ten years later in Rwanda – and part plea for a more sensible, rational approach to helping alleviate poverty. Novogratz details projects in multiple countries, from creating jobs for women in central Africa to developing mosquito nets that don’t lose effectiveness to expanding access to cataract surgery in India, where a small upfront investment coupled with some expertise led to a substantial return, particularly in economic growth for people who had no opportunities beyond subsistence farming and in improving health and sanitation conditions. (If you’re poor, and you’re not healthy or don’t have access to clean water, you’re much more likely to stay poor, since you can’t work if you’re sick and then can’t pay for the care to get well.)

Her individual anecdotes tend to be pretty compelling, in part because Novogratz has worked in some areas that were either desperately poor or were caught up in conflicts. One of Novogratz’ close colleagues in Rwanda was killed, perhaps assassinated, for pushing women’s rights, and another, mentioned above, ended up a leader in the genocide. She runs into surprising interference from women in Africa who resent her presence – that local men will listen to her, a white woman from the west, but not to local women, even if they boast some western education. Getting money isn’t a problem per se; it’s getting it from donors who are willing to think small, who’ll accept modest goals that people on the ground can achieve, rather than lofty goals (let’s end hunger! Let’s cure AIDS!) that are unattainable. It’s the idea behind sites like GlobalGiving, where the projects are small but the objectives clear and reasonable.

Novogratz speaks of her work in these countries with two voices, one of which tends to undermine the other. When speaking about the actual plans and execution, she sounds like a businessperson, keeping others accountable, asking questions that an investor in a startup might ask, and ensuring that money is going to where it will do some lasting good. But when she starts to talk about the locals in Rwanda, Pakistan, Brazil, and elsewhere, or to describe the places themselves, she sounds like a tourist. Everyone is beautiful, every color is radiant, everyone is so nice, even the ones who turn out to be corrupt or, in one case, associated with the genocide (and later imprisoned for her role). There’s a strain in travel literature where the white westerner fetishizes the natives of developing countries, and that’s on display here. I can’t doubt Novogratz’ sincerity, and it sounds like she’s tough on locals who come in for microloans with half-formed plans, but she appears to have met a long string of perfect and handsome people while traveling the world. The stories themselves are interesting, and I salute the sacrifices she’s made to live this life and try to improve the world, but The Blue Sweater doesn’t do enough to convince the reader that this is the right way to help the world’s poor.

Next up: I’m still several books behind in reviews, but I’m currently reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

Stick to baseball, 5/13/17.

My one Insider post this week was my first ‘mock’ draft for 2017, although it’s really too early for that sort of exercise. And I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Smart Baseball is out now in the U.S. and Canada; you can order it here or get it at any local bookstore. We are working on getting an ebook version out in some international markets, but I can’t promise anything there yet.

I have two signings/talks this week, for which I’m very excited (and a little anxious, to be honest). The first is in Decatur, Georgia (Atlanta area), at the Georgia Center for the Book on Tuesday at 7 pm, and the AJC was kind enough to lead their book events page with a note about my appearance. The second is in Minneapolis at Moon Palace Books on Thursday at 6:30 pm. I hope to meet many of you at these events, both of which are free to attend.

I’ve been asked by many of you about organizing other events. If a bookstore reaches out to Harper Collins to invite me, and I can work it into my schedule, I’m certainly open to doing more. I do have further events scheduled for Toronto, Miami (July 8th), and Berkeley (July 19th), plus am hoping to do signings at GenCon and PAX Unplugged later this year.

I spoke with SUNY-Oswego Professor of Digital Media Brian Moritz about the book, analytics in sports, and being a writer. I joined The Young Turks’ video show to discuss the book and media resistance to advanced stats. I also spoke with ESPN Radio in Dallas, with ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati, and with SI Now about the book & Mike Mussina’s Hall of Fame case.

And now, the links…

The End of Ownership.

Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz’s book The End of Ownership gives a surprisingly strong argument that our rights as consumers are rapidly being eroded by changes both in the law and in technology, so that we no longer own many things we might believe we do. In the era of digital goods from books and music and movies to software, we are still paying for the same content, but when once we purchased, now we merely “license” – even though most consumers probably aren’t even aware of the change.

For most of the history of commerce, if you bought a good, you got the good, and that was essentially that. If you bought a book, you owned that copy of the book. You were free to do with that copy as you wished, so long as you didn’t make unauthorized copies of it. You could lend it to someone, or you could sell it outright. The owner of the copyright on that book could not stop you from doing any of those things, nor could s/he repossess the book from you for any reason. The same is true of a patented good: if you buy a widget, you can resell the widget, even if the widget itself is covered by a patent. This is known as the “exhaustion principle” or the “first sale doctrine.” (I’m sticking with U.S. domestic laws on intellectual property here; the rules laws on international exhaustion are often less clear.) I own a special green-vinyl edition of A Tribe Called Quest’s single “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo;” I still own that record, but I could lend, sell, or donate it as I please, without the group’s permission, and without affecting ATCQ’s copyright to the underlying work.

In the digital realm, however, this principle has been superseded by licensing agreements – those things you’re given when you download a digital good or install a software update, which you don’t read but you click “Agree” anyway because let’s get on with this already. Those licenses say you don’t own the goods you’re paying for, even though you probably clicked on something that said the word “buy,” which strongly implies a purchase, not a license. Those agreements, known as end-user licensing agreements or EULAs, curtail the consumer’s rights in ways that the consumer may not understand or expect, resulting in an imbalance of information between buyer and seller where the former probably believes he’s acquiring more rights than he actually is, including the rights to make copies of the good for his personal use, and the right to retain the product in perpetuity.

Law professors Perzanowski and Schultz argue that this is a three-pronged problem. One, consumers believe they’re getting something they’re not. Two, companies are unilaterally abrogating rights afforded to consumers by federal and state laws. And three, Congress and federal courts have totally dropped the ball on the entire issue, passing laws that favor content creators at the expense of both consumers and the public good, or issuing contradictory rulings that reduce our rights in ways that consumers don’t understand and that help take away any semblance of ”ownership.”

The authors give copious examples, some of which were truly non-obvious to me. As the so-called “Internet of Things” expands to include more devices that don’t obviously need an internet connection but have one anyway – like the microwave in that Conway twit’s kitchen – then our rights of ownership are also affected. You might own the physical parts of the refrigerator, but you’re only licensing the software on it, so you can’t sell the fridge because you don’t own the whole thing. You may not be able to sell your smartphone for the same reason – the manufacturers can argue that you are only licensing the software on it, which means you own the device but not the entire unit to be able to sell it.

Why is this OK? The authors give the example of a hat that is only licensed to the purchaser, not sold, so the purchaser can’t transfer ownership of the hat via any method to anyone else. Would you buy that hat? Would you even understand the legalese that accompanies it? In another example, the authors pose the hypothetical of “single-use” car tires, which your tire license would prohibit you from repairing once they were damaged or worn out. Consumers have a specific expectation when they purchase something, but when you ‘purchase’ a digital good, those expectations exceed the reality, yet for some reason we accept this loss of purchaser rights in the digital realm without any real pushback.

What about libraries in the digital world? Some publishers, including HarperCollins (mine), have created programs for libraries to buy digital books, but with heavy restrictions on how libraries may lend them out; HarperCollins only allows one ‘copy’ of the book to be on loan at any time, and after a fixed number of borrowings (I think it’s 24), the library’s license to the book must be renewed. The publishers argue that such restrictions are necessary to avoid cannibalizing the market for book sales, and that the restrictions mirror the physical decay of books that are repeatedly handled and borrowed. I can understand the former, but the latter doesn’t hold water for me, since I recently borrowed a book, Martin Flavin’s Pulitzer-winning novel Journey in the Dark, from my local library, and the edition – worn, but intact – dated back to the late 1940s.

The authors do an excellent job of translating thorny legal questions into accessible language, and offer some very specific solutions that Congress could enact to solve many of these problems – and if Congress had ever shown an iota of interest in protecting consumer interests over those of copyright holders, well, I might have some hope. The legislative history of copyright law in the U.S. is essentially all anti-consumer, with copyright terms becoming longer and such laws on digital goods reducing consumer rights even further. The mere concept of copyright was to ensure content creators were sufficiently rewarded so that they’d continue to create – if you can’t make money off your creations, you’ll have to do something else to pay the bills. The concept was not intended to provide such legal protections for two human lifetimes, but that’s about where it stands now, because there are some very big companies out there who depend on long-term copyright protections, and they can spend to ensure that works don’t fall into the public domain when they were originally scheduled to do so. The parade of degradations of consumer rights seem unlikely to cease any time soon, and the end of that path could be the end of ownership.

Next up: Upton Sinclair’s novel Dragon’s Teeth, winner of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Stick to baseball, 4/8/16.

My standings and awards predictions for 2016 went up last Saturday, in case you missed those. My one Insider piece since then was a draft blog post, co-authored with Eric Longenhagen, covering Jason Groome, Bryson Brigman, and more. We will have a top 50 draft prospect ranking up on Tuesday.

I held my usual Klawchat on Thursday, going a bit longer than normal because I was so busy answering your questions I lost track of time.

And now, the links…

  • Best longread of the week comes from the Guardian, which explains how nutrition scientists pushed low-fat advice and ignored science for decades, even to the point of destroying the career of the first scientist to sound the anti-sugar bell. A Harvard professor is cited within the piece as demanding the retraction of a peer-reviewed article published in BMJ on the topic; I exchanged emails with him, and he said that the author of the article, Ian Leslie, was “clearly not interested” in hearing a contrary opinion.
  • The NCAA isn’t just a group of corporate fat cats and millionaire coaches profiting off the unpaid physical labor of college athletes; it’s a giant wealth transfer from black to white.
  • Amy Schumer’s “plus-sized is okay but I am not plus-sized” imbroglio got thinkpieced to death this week … but the A/V Club did do the subject justice by pointing out the damage of labeling women at all. Men don’t really face this – there’s “big and tall,” but hell, tall is considered good for men. (I am not tall; I’m 5’6″, very short for an adult American male, and trust me, I’ve long heard how this is not a good thing.) Why do women have to be plus-sized or minus-sized or whatever-the-fuck-sized at all?
  • From the “look at this idiot” department: A vaccine-denier mom gave her newborn whooping cough. She regrets being an idiot now, apparently. If you think vaccines are not safe, you are wrong, and should listen to every reputable scientist and doctor in the world who says to vaccinate your kids.
  • Eephus is a new sports-themed online magazine (do I even have to say “online” any more?) and one of its first pieces was by my friend Will Leitch, who waxes nostalgic over baseball boardgames.
  • A great interview with culinary icon Alton Brown from Bitter Southerner.
  • A state senator in Virginia wants Beloved out of public schools because it’s “smut,”, and he told a high school English teacher that he knew better than she did. Read his emails to see his ignorance at work, as he calls the greatest American novel of the last 40 years “vile,” “smut,” and “moral sewage.”
  • Facebook now has a tool to report users who might be about to harm themselves and try to get them help.
  • All this talk about the various laws raising the minimum wage to $15/hour led me to this takedown of a WaPo editorial criticizing the laws, in which the author contends (among other things) that the rise in wages for the lowest income bracket will lead to greater increases in demand, because when you have very little money, you spend each additional dollar you get.
  • This JAMA editorial argues that we may be reaching the financial limits of pharmaceutical innovation. I think he’s half right, in that we are approaching that limit, but do not believe it will stop or even slow innovation, but must drive new price models. A fundamental problem of health care is that our demand for services that will improve, extend, or save our lives is essentially inelastic: You can raise the price and we’ll still want as much, and eventually we will simply pay everything we have if it means continuing to live.
  • The chefs at Nashville’s wonderful izakaya and ramen joint Two Ten Jack read and respond to negative reviews in this funny 90-second video. I brought a group of writers to TTJ in December (Jess Benefield came out to chat while we were there) and had an unbelievable and very reasonably priced meal.

The Unfinished Game.

I’m still playing a bit of catchup on stuff I read during March (and just finished Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War over lunch today), but one title I definitely want to bring to everyone’s attention is the delightful, short book by mathematician (and NPR’s “Math Guy”) Keith Devlin called The Unfinished Game, which explains how one specific letter in the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat opened the door to the world of probability and everything that this branch of mathematics makes possible.

The unfinished game of the book’s title was based on a common, popular controversy of the time surrounding games of chance, which were largely seen as incalculable – our modern, simple way of calculating odds of things like throws of the dice just did not exist at the time. Pascal and Fermat discussed the question of how to divide winnings in a game of two or more players where the players choose to abandon the game before any one player has won the requisite number of matches. (So, for example, they’re playing a best-of-five, but the players quit after three rounds, with one player having won two times and the other one.) The controversy in question will seem silly to any modern reader who’s taken even a few weeks of probability theory in high school math, but Devlin is deft enough to explain the problem in 1600s terms, so that the logical confusion of the era is clear on the page.

The confusion stemmed from the misunderstanding about the frequencies of subsequent events, given that the game would not always be played to its conclusion: You may say up front you’re going to play a best of seven, but you do not always need to play seven matches to determine a winner. If you quit after three games, in the situation I outlined above, it is possible that you would have needed just one more match to determine a winner, and it is possible that you would have needed two more matches. Pascal’s letter to Fermat proposed a method of determining how to split the winnings in such an unfinished game; the letter was the start of modern probability theory, and the problem is now known as the problem of points. (You can read the entire surviving correspondence on the University of York’s website; it also includes their conversations on prime numbers, including Fermat’s surprising error in claiming that all numbers of the form 2(2n)+1, which is only true for 0 ≤ n ≤ 4. Those five numbers are now called Fermat primes; Euler later showed Fermat’s hypothesis was wrong, and 2(25)+1 = 4294967297, which is composite.)

Fermat realized you must count all of the potential solutions, even ones that would not occur because they involved playing the fifth game when it was made unnecessary by the first player winning the fourth match and taking the entire set, so to speak. (The problem they discussed was slightly more involved.) Pascal took Fermat’s tabular solution, a brute-force method of counting out all possible outcomes, and made it generalizable to all cases with a formula that works for any number of players and rounds. This also contributed to Pascal’s work on what we now call Pascal’s triangle, and created what statisticians and economists now refer to as “expectation value” – the amount of money you can expect to win on a specific bet given the odds and payout of each outcome.

Devlin goes about as far as you can when your subject is a single letter, with entertaining diversions into the lives of Pascal and Fermat (who corresponded yet never met) and tangents like Pascal’s wager. At heart, the 166-page book is about probability theory, and Devlin makes the subject accessible to any potential reader, even ones who haven’t gone beyond algebra in school. Given how much of our lives – things like insurance, financial markets, and sports betting, to say nothing of the probabilistic foundations of quantum theory – are possible because of probability theory, The Unfinished Game should probably be required reading for any high school student.

Next up: I just started Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Scorecasting.

I apologize for the long delay between posts; we moved into our house last week and are finally settled, although far from unpacked.

I tweeted earlier today that I’ll be joining ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast as a co-host three days a week starting in mid-March. And, if you missed it, my preseason ranking of the top 50 prospects for this year’s Rule 4 draft went up last Thursday.

Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won aims to be the Freakonomics of sports, a marketing angle made quite clear from the cover quote from Steven Levitt that calls Scorecasting the best book of its kind since Freakonomics, which is funny, since Levitt co-wrote that book. (And one wonders if the authors share an agent or an editor or something else.) My cynicism over the quotes aside, Scorecasting is a fun read, one that does a better job of challenging conventional wisdom than providing hard answers to hard questions, the sort of book that could make an old-school sports fan rethink some of his positions without requiring a background in behavioral economics. If you’re here, however, the odds are good that your mind is already open, in which case Scorecasting is more of an enjoyable lark but might leave you looking for more serious analysis than what the authors offer in a book aimed at the mainstream audience.

Wertheim and Moskowitz attack a number of questions over the course of the book, with the only unifying theme that these are questions that can be examined (if not actually answered) through some very rudimentary statistical analysis. For example, they examine the potential causes of home-field advantage, which is fairly persistent within sports but doesn’t seem to tie to attendance; whether icing the kicker is an effective strategy (I won’t reveal their answer, but have always found the practice unsportsmanlike); or whether momentum exists. The template for each essay – some just two or three pages, others thirty or forty – is standard: Explain the question and the conventional wisdom on the subject, discuss how they operationalized the variables, then present the results in text and graphical format, usually just showing some evidence telling us whether there’s a correlation between the independent and dependent variable. For example, in the momentum chapter (“The Myth of the Hot Hand”), they look at basketball, defining what a “hot” period of time constitutes (one, two, five, and ten-minute samples), then look at point differentials over the one, two, five, and ten minute periods immediately following a “hot” period. It’s not rigorous, but it will likely sway some of your opinions even if it doesn’t convince you.

The best essays in the book combine the Freakonomics-style analysis with interesting stories, like the chapter on the history of trades in the NFL draft (“Off the Chart”), which discusses the famous Mike McCoy chart on how to value draft picks in trade talks. The authors describe the chart’s genesis, early successes, propagation, and loss of usefulness once everyone had it, along with some potential explanations for the psychology behind incorrect valuations of draft picks. (Yet another reason why I’d like to see MLB allow teams to trade draft picks: It’s another way for smart front offices to create value.) Another essay (“Rounding First”) asks why we see more round numbers in seasonal statistics than you’d expect if the results were normally distributed, pointing to psychological and perhaps financial incentives that drive behavior in situations where the leverage (to the player, not the team) is increased.

Scorecasting is a text for the mass market, which means fewer numbers and more broad brush strokes in the book. I’m not the first to raise this objection, but the way the authors treat results that are merely indicative as if they’re conclusive is offputting if you realize what they’re doing and misleading if you don’t. For one thing, their analytical methods, while valid, are on the superficial side. For another, they often confuse correlation with causation, and even though I often agreed with their arguments on the causes of the effects they discovered, they meld those opinions with statements of statistical facts in a way that just isn’t warranted. It’s a marketing issue – the book wouldn’t sell if they just presented data paired with a lot of “draw your own conclusions” quotes – but it takes what could have been a serious work and makes it a popular one.

And some of their conclusions just aren’t supported by the analysis, at least when it comes to baseball. They offer throwaway comments on how a salary cap would increase parity in baseball without an ounce of evidence to justify the statements. They claim that PEDs improve baseball performance by showing that players who had been suspended for PED usage were more likely to be promoted to the next level, a lousy proxy for multiple reasons and one that makes their conclusion, “In addition to the science, the data support the claim that steroids work,” ignorant on both sides of its comma. I imagine that the authors glossed over similar controversies in other sports, enough that no matter your game of choice you’ll find something in the book to annoy you.

You should read Scorecasting, though, in spite of its shortcomings. Moneyball was equally flawed, perhaps more so, and yet it launched a quiet revolution not just within the industry but within the fan base, an inflection point that I believe saw a major increase in the number of students of the game who began pursuing and publishing their own analyses, with some even finding themselves entering the industry as a result. I could see Scorecasting as a similar spur to innovation in the analysis of sports, and in the way sports are covered. One thing that Scorecasting does confront, without ever explicitly saying so, is ignorance. If you say “X causes Y,” others will look for a way to verify it, so don’t make the statement without trying to verify it yourself.

The Big Short.

My final draft reviews are up for the American League and the National League.

I’ll be on KNBR 1050 in San Francisco at 1 pm PDT today with my friend Damon Bruce. I’m sure we’ll talk about how bad AAA pitching is and why the Giants need more veteran presence.

I’m leaving for vacation on Saturday, so between now and then I’m going to try to do a few quick dish posts on books I’ve read since the draft rush began.

Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine follows three investors who foresaw the meltdown in the subprime mortgage market and each made a killing off of it, using their stories as a way to expose the lunacy of the collateralized debt obligations used to sell these destined-to-fail loans (much of which was new to me) and to do something Lewis does very well: Create villains and take them down.

Lewis has two great strengths as a writer: His prose is easy and natural, and he has a gift for finding interesting protagonists. Of the three profiled in The Big Short, none is more compelling than Michael Burry, the awkward, antisocial neurology student whose investment blog becomes so legendary that he quits medicine to raise his own value-investing fund, only to abandon that approach and bet everything on what he saw as the inevitable collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Second in interest level is Steve Eisman, the perpetually angry hedge-fund manager who spends the entire book in a state of mounting disbelief at the stupidity of nearly everyone involved in the giant Ponzi scheme of subprime mortgages. The third major winner on bets against the market, the three-man investment outfit Cornwall Capital, had an incredible run of success, turning a $100,000 initial investment into a nine-figure fund, but their stories just aren’t as compelling as Eisman’s or particularly Burry’s.

The real villains here are the ratings agencies who weren’t so much asleep at the wheel as passed-out drunk. Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch continued to give high ratings to investment vehicles they didn’t examine or even understand, and once Lewis’ protagonist investors realized what was going on, they ratcheted up their bets against the subprime market, with one going to so far as to short the stocks of the ratings agencies. Lewis does spread the blame around, vilifying the investment banks who sold CDOs while enabling bets against them, the mortgage originators who gave out loans to people who lacked the income to pay for them and which were structured to fail, and the host of people who made money from the industry and didn’t want to hear the doomsayers’ warnings about an impending collapse. But the biggest culprit of all is human nature: We respond to incentives, and the system provided incentives for almost every villain to do what he did. Originators were paid for originating but faced no consequences when their loans went bad. Ratings agencies had immunity from claims when their ratings turned out to be bogus. And nothing prevented investment banks from betting everything on black or from profiting by playing both sides of a gamble.

I listened to the audio version of The Big Short and thought the reader did an excellent job in both pacing and distinguishing between all of the while middle-aged men who populated the book.

White Man’s Burden.

William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good is, really, kind of a downer. He points out that billions in foreign aid poured into developing countries across three continents have accomplished nothing, that global pledges to end poverty and hunger have epicfailed, and that most if not all foreign aid efforts are built on a foundation of racial and ethnic condescension: The West acts as if the world’s poor people, who are largely dark-skinned, need the help of the educated, advanced, civilized white man. And that is far from the truth.

Easterley’s arguments against foreign aid as we know it are straightforward. One, Big Plans don’t work. If the goal is absurdly large, the project will fail. If the goal is vague, the project will fail. If accountability isn’t possible, the project will fail.

Two, aid projects rarely consider what the recipients want, but instead consider what the donors want. He gives the example of highways in Tanzania built with aid from foreign donors who didn’t provide funding for road maintenance; the roads “deteriorated faster than donors built new ones, due to lack of maintenance.”

Three, aid projects nearly always impose massive costs on recipient governments, both in manpower shifted to dealing with aid projects and in paperwork. In fact, Easterly questions why aid must always go to recipient governments, which, in developing nations, are often corrupt, autocratic, and even cruel (reason four).

And five, the West nearly always attaches stipulations to aid, such as changes to government policies or structures, that inevitably fail and take the aid-related projects with them. Nation-building doesn’t work, whether via military intervention or wholesale importation of another nation’s laws and policies.

Easterly backs up his arguments with anecdotes and analyses of data from the World Bank and the IMF (two of the main targets of his criticisms – he really tears into the World Bank’s penchant for doublespeak). The data are more compelling than the anecdotes, but the anecdotes carry the book along; without them, it would be borderline unreadable. It’s an advocacy book that isn’t written as one; Easterly is telling the story of the data, and given the evident lack of progress in combating poverty, hunger, and AIDS in the developing world, it’s hard to argue. Easterly devotes an entire chapter to the story of AIDS in the developing world, particularly Africa, pointing out, for example, that

For the same money spent giving one more year of life to an AIDS patient, you could give 75 to 1500 years of additional life (say fifteen extra years for each of five to one hundred people) to the rest of the population through AIDS prevention.

Yet Western aid programs are all geared towards getting expensive medications towards the 5% of Africans already suffering from AIDS because that’s what donors want (think of the brain-dead protests against pharmaceutical companies a few years ago). Teaching prevention through condom usage doesn’t make for great headlines, but it’s much more cost-effective and more closely tracks what recipients want.

Easterly points out that countries have developed from the Third World to the First with limited Western aid. Botswana was one of the few African nations to end up with a mostly homogenous population after the Europeans fabricated all sorts of borders across the continent, and through a stable democracy, some smart management of natural resources (mostly diamonds), and lack of interference before and after independence from their colonizers to build one of the fastest-growing nations in Africa. Their economy has even been strong enough to cope with a severe AIDS crisis. Turkey, Japan, and Chile all developed from Third to First World inside of fifty years without much aid or interference from the West.

The most interesting part to me was Easterly’s mention of globalgiving.com, a micro-charity site that aims to connect donors interested in supporting the type of projects Easterly encourages (because they work) with aid workers and local good Samaritans running just such projects. He gives an example of a project that was “so tiny, in fact, that it initially embarrassed” the site’s founder: a request for $5000 to build a separate toilet block for girls at a school in Coimbatore, India. They got the money and built the toilet block, and lo and behold, the dropout rate for girls who hit puberty dropped dramatically. It occurred to me that we might pick a project there as the target for Klawbaiting funds, which I’ll kick off with a $50 donation to cover past times when I’ve been successfully baited by readers. My suggestion would be this project to help disabled Kenyan children attend school. It’s exactly the sort of unsexy project that Easterly complains aid agencies overlook, but that has a higher rate of success and that meets a stated need of the recipients.

Next up: I’m halfway through Faulkner’s Light in August. I usually do a lot of reading in dribs and drabs – five pages here, ten there – but I find that Faulkner is best read in longer sittings.

Stock-market forecasting.

Interesting Wall St. Journal article today on why most stock-market forecasts are wrong. The whole article is a good read, but here’s the part that surprised me:

History shows that the vast majority of the time, the stock market does next to nothing. Then, when no one expects it, the market delivers a giant gain or loss — and promptly lapses back into its usual stupor. Javier Estrada, a finance professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, has studied the daily returns of the Dow Jones Industrial Average back to 1900. I asked him to extend his research through the end of 2008. Prof. Estrada found that if you took away the 10 best days, two-thirds of the cumulative gains produced by the Dow over the past 109 years would disappear. Conversely, had you sidestepped the market’s 10 worst days, you would have tripled the actual return of the Dow.

I wonder what bearing this has on the debate over whether or not share prices follow a random walk.