Friday, August 27, 2004

Legal Back-Flips

My sister Ellen, who is a gymnast, added the following comments about the Paul Hamm controversy (see my prior post here). I’ve boldfaced the parts that jumped out at me.

[E]ven if Yang's scoring had been done correctly, it wouldn't have guaranteed him the gold.

a. Like Glen said, he actually violated the rule about 3-holds (more on that later if anyone cares) which would have gotten him 0.2 points off. But the judges missed it.

b. Say the element that gave Yang his 0.1 point gets accounted for by the judges. That doesn't mean he'll get the entire 0.1 for it. The judges can take the entire 0.1 back from him if he executes the skill poorly enough or in such a way that it isn't counted as the skill that is worth 0.1. They could even take more than 0.1 away from him. For example, if I put an element worth 0.4 in my routine, but then I don't execute it correctly I could only receive 0.2. If I do it so poorly that it's mistaken for a different trick or a "non-trick", then it's 0.4 off. If I fall or wobble so many times I get a deduction worth a fall taken, I get 0.5 off -- more than I added by trying it. I would have been better off if the judges just didn't acknowledge that I attempted that element.

In addition to all this, grievances are supposed to be made within one rotation of the event. Yang's start value was flashed before he began, and if he had a problem with it his coaches should have had a complaint all ready to hand over as soon as his routine was done.

Incidentally, he did better on the routine started at a 9.9 than he did the previous night when he was starting at 10.0. And so he didn't complain... until Paul Hamm got the gold.
All this further confirms my opinion that retrospective refereeing is a bad idea. Better to let scores stand (subject to a specified challenge procedure like the one Yang failed to use) than to go back and try to re-judge everything based on the videotape.


Thursday, August 26, 2004

Junk-Food Junkies

Todd Zywicki makes a plausible argument about vending machines in public schools:

On the other hand, let me stress that it might still be appropriate to ban vending machines at school, although it will do little to combat obesity [for reasons explained elsewhere in Todd’s post – GW]. I think a strong argument can be made that the problem with vending machines is that they permit children to consume junk food without parental supervision and on that basis alone it might be appropriate to ban them.
The appropriate rules for children obviously differ from the appropriate rules for adults. For that reason, I’m quite happy not to grant the full complement of libertarian rights to kids, and I have no problem in principle with the vending machine proposal. Parents should have the authority, within limits, to control their children’s diets.

Still, some of the usual libertarian insights on prohibition would seem to apply here. I predict that a vending machine ban would encourage enterprising youngsters to bring in junk food from the outside to sell to their classmates. Black markets are hardly unknown to the public schools. If the kids can sneak in coke, surely they could sneak in Coke – especially if the ban did not extend to junk foods that parents put in their kids’ lunches. The result? Higher prices, and drinks that aren’t refrigerator cold.

And now for the slippery slope. Upon observing a black market in junk food, school authorities would never see fit to lift the ban. At best, they would let the imperfectly enforced ban stand. More likely, given the personality types that typically gravitate to positions of authority in the public schools, would be the emergence of a “zero tolerance” policy. No longer could more permissive parents allow their kids to bring their own junk food, because such food might be sold to the children of less permissive parents. The process would culminate in a complete ban on junk food of any kind in school.

Of course, I’m just speculating here. But if my speculation is correct, notice how the debate unfolds: what begins as an argument based on parental discretion (“parents who want to restrict their children’s diets should be able to do so”) ends up as a restriction on parental discretion (“you can’t send your children to school with junk food in their lunches”).


Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Arbitary Athletic Attachments

The Olympic Games always generate a wave of “scoreboard nationalism,” as Matthew Barganier dubs it. The equation of athletic triumph with the superiority of one’s race/culture/politico-economic system is, of course, bollocks. A part of me wants to say: “The victory of American athletes vindicates the capitalist way of life. Our economic system produces the surplus wealth necessary to fund the training of champions.” Or something like that. But, of course, if China takes a few medals from us, I want to say: “Well, consider the opportunity cost. The Chinese government spends outrageous amounts of money on athletics, and that’s money that could have been spent by the Chinese people on goods and services they value more.”

My judgment on China is the more trustworthy one. You cannot judge any society or economic system based on its performance in a single field of endeavor. Even a poor totalitarian regime can do well at just one thing by pouring its wealth into it. To applaud the nation’s performance in that one area, without considering the sacrifices it has made elsewhere, is to measure benefits while sweeping costs under the rug. And that goes for the U.S., too: the resources we spend on athletics could be spent elsewhere.

So athletic nationalism makes little sense. But on the other hand, it’s usually pretty harmless. I’d far rather see jingoism play out on the soccer field than on the battlefield. And besides, allegiance to sports teams is always fairly arbitrary. People I know root vehemently for the L.A. Lakers every year, simply because they’re based in L.A. (with players drawn from all over the country, and a team name drawn from Minnesota). Why? Because sports are more fun when you feel personally involved, so you pick somebody and choose to identify with them. In the case of Olympic sports, many of which the general public witnesses only once every four years, few spectators will know the athletes by name or reputation, and thus we need some other way of choosing who to identify with. Nationality works as well as anything else.


Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Legal Gymnastics

The Paul Hamm controversy got me thinking about the nature of rules. (Eh, the mind of an academic.) The conflict appears to be one of substantive versus procedural justice. As the advocates of South Korea’s Yang might put it, “Yang deserved to win, because he did a better job on the parallel bars; he shouldn’t be deprived of his medal because of a silly technical requirement about the deadline for lodging protests.” Hamm’s advocates rely on a more procedural argument: “He was given the medal and it’s just not right to take it away. The Koreans had their chance to make a formal protest, and they missed it.”

Superficially, the substantive argument sounds better. After all, it would be difficult to condemn an innocent man to a prison term, knowing his innocence, because of a procedural error committed by his defense attorney.

But what if there were not any underlying matter of guilt or innocence? What if court proceedings were nothing but a game, like a moot court or mock trial? In that case, procedure’s all there is. And that, I think, is the closer analog to gymnastics and any other sport. Sports are not just constrained or affected by their rules; they are defined by them. Frederick Schauer refers to these as “constitutive rules,” because they literally constitute the activity in question. Without the rules, the activity would not exist.

When an activity is defined by its rules, the line between substantive and procedural rules is pretty much impossible to draw. Players and coaches have to adjust their behavior to take greatest advantage of the rule configuration. Rules that appear merely procedural take on a strategic character. For instance, NFL teams know they can use their limited number of instant replays as quasi-time-outs. NBA teams know they can use fouls to interrupt the other team’s momentum.

In gymnastics, the rule stipulating that challenges must occur within a certain time period might seem arbitrary. Then again, all the rules are somewhat arbitrary. The start values and bonus values for different gymnastic feats – which the judges misapplied in Yang’s case – lack any cosmic justification. They are decided upon by people, and sometimes they change. Indeed, a last-minute change in values induced Blaine Wilson to change his high-bar routine, leading to a critical error and a nasty blow to head. Yang’s claim is that one arbitrary rule (relating to challenge deadlines) should be suspended while others (relating to start values) should remain fixed.

If some form of “justice” ought to prevail in sports, I think it relates to the public character and medium-term constancy of the rules. The players and their coaches need enough time to familiarize themselves with the rules and devise optimal strategies to deal with them. Last-minute changes alter the calculus without allowing response time. As far as I can tell, the rules relating to score challenges had been established well in advance (whereas the change in start/bonus values that affected Blaine Wilson occurred just before the games began). I see no particular reason to treat the challenge deadline as a negotiable rule while treating others as sacrosanct. Let Paul Hamm keep his gold, for whatever it’s worth to him now.

UPDATE: Read this for more info. Seems Yang may have committed an unnoticed error in his routine, carrying a penalty greater than the difference attributable to the incorrect start value. If the normal review process is suspended, Hamm's supporters argue (I think correctly), then there's no bulwark against reviewing the whole thing on tape and making all adjustments. Does anyone else notice a growing resemblance to the 2000 presidential election?


Sunday, August 22, 2004

Of Guns, Vipers, and Crime Control

Mark Kleiman makes an excellent but oft-ignored point about crime:

The purpose of police work and prosecution is crime control.

But what police and prosecutors do from day to day is make arrests and secure convictions (or guilty pleas) and thus sentences. It seems natural to count those activities and use the counts as performance measures. That, however, turns out to be a mistake. Actual arrests and prosecutions are mostly costs rather than benefits.
Moreover, the figures the authorities cite may actually reflect failure, not success. More arrests and convictions could indicate more crime, not less. To evaluate the effectiveness of any crime control measure, you need to look at the bottom line, i.e., the number/severity of crimes committed, or at least some good proxy thereof. More simply put: you need to measure outputs, not inputs.

Here’s my favorite example of a crime-control measure that is evaluated using exactly the wrong data: gun buy-back programs. Politicians regularly tout the number of guns collected as evidence of the programs’ success:
Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy: “It is obvious that with 1,235 guns off the streets, the program is working effectively.” (1,235 was the number of guns turned in during a buy-back.)

ABQ Journal: “There are fewer guns in Las Cruces today. Police collected about 160 weapons and 1,000 rounds of ammunition during a gun buy-back program Saturday.”

Website of Maricopa County (AZ) Supervisor Mary Rose Garrido Wilcox: “Gun Buy-Back a huge success … ‘I'm excited to announce that this year we took in more than 200 guns at our two locations. …,’ said Wilcox. … ‘The Gun Buy-Back program has saved hundreds of lives in these communities and in our own. We are dedicated to continue saving lives of Arizonans by getting guns off the street,’ said Supervisor Wilcox.”

District of Columbia Police Department Press Release: “Saying that lives will be saved as a result, Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey today announced the Metropolitan Police Department took in 1,787 firearms on Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the first phase of ‘Operation Save A Life,’ the District of Columbia's gun buy-back program. … ‘Every one of the nearly 1,800 guns collected represents a step towards making the District of Columbia safer, and this weekend's buy-back served both as a national model and as an inspiration for buy-backs HUD is supporting in other communities throughout the nation,’ he said.”

Another press release from the same source: “‘Getting one dangerous and illegal firearm off our streets or out of a home is significant because of the potential pain and tragedy that single weapon can inflict,’ said Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey. ‘Getting more than 6,200 firearms off our streets and out of our homes is a momentous victory for safer children, safer families and safer communities throughout our city.’”
The problem, of course, is that purchasing a gun doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the number of guns in the hands of the public. The gun buy-back might encourage the trafficking of guns into the region, if the price is high enough. If the price is low, it still might encourage people to trade-in old guns so they can purchase new ones (much like when an auto dealership offers to buy your old junker). And even if gun buy-backs succeed in reducing the stock of guns in the hands of the public, who’s selling them – criminals, whose livelihoods depend on their guns, or law-abiding citizens who rarely need their guns? While it’s possible that gun buy-backs reduce crime, the number of guns collected does nothing to prove it.

When I think about gun buy-backs’ effectiveness, I recall the old story (possibly apocryphal, but still instructive) about the town of Abruzzi, Italy:
The city was plagued by vipers, and the city fathers determined to solve the problem by offering a reward for any viper killed. Alas, the supply of vipers increased. Townspeople had started breeding them in their basements. [from S. E. Rhoads (1985), The Economist's View of the World: Government, Markets, and Public Policy, Cambridge University Press, p. 58]
And I’ll bet that one of the city fathers trumpeted the success of the program based on the number of dead vipers turned in for the bounty.