No Panaceas

Saturday, July 05, 2003
 
Ode to the Tour: It puts me among a puny fraction of North Americans, but my favorite sporting event is the Tour de France. It's better than the World Series, the Super Bowl, or the NBA and NHL Finals. It's better than any car race (yawn) or golf tournament (bigger yawn). It's better than Wimbledon, or the Ashes, or the Aussie Rules Grand Final. It's even better than the Olympics or the World Cup, though both these quadrennial events have their moments. Unlike any other event the Tour brings together pageantry, drama, danger, endurance, individual sports, teams sports, strategy, and skill into an extraordinary three week festival.

You want variety? Think about how many different competitions are going on at once. First, and best known, is the General Classification which is the competition for the fastest overall time in completing the tour. This is Lance Armstrong's target. Then there is the Points competition, which more or less goes to the best sprinter. The King of the Mountains contest goes to the best mountain climber and the Youngest Rider contest goes to the under-25 rider who places highest in the GC. Then there is the team competition, for the overall team that gets to Paris the fastest. Combine these competitions for the overall race with the 21 stages, each themselves a separate, highly prestigious competition. (There are even races within the individual stage races.) And then stages themselves differ dramatically, each offering a different set of dynamics that plays to the strengths of different types of bikers. Some end up with a high-speed bunch sprint at the end. Some lend themselves to break-aways where one or more riders get ahead of the main pack (peloton) and then try desperately to hang on for the win. Some stages feature brutal 8,000 foot mountains. Then there are the time trials where it is just the individual, and sometimes a team, against the clock.

You want pageantry? The Tour is one great big colorful traveling extravaganza. Sometimes it even has police raids. It's got obsessed, wacky fans who can sometimes literally reach out and touch the action. (And the price of admission is free.) There is a large variety of colorful uniforms with the contest leaders sporting trophy (or target, depending on how you look at) jerseys: Yellow for GC, Green for Points, Red-Polka dotted for King of the Mountains, and White for the Youngest Rider.

You want danger? Imagine going down a rain-slicked mountain road at 65 miles an hour on nothing but a couple of tires no wider than your thumb. Or imagine being in the middle of two dozen cyclists bumping and shoving at more than 40 miles an hour. One mistake and everybody goes down. Hard. Football linebackers are wimps compared world-class sprinters. I have not seen a comparision but when you add up serious injuries and deaths, cycling must rate near the top of dangerous sports. Broken bones are a given and cyclists die far too often. Andrei Kivilev, a wonderful rider who was in the Yellow Jersey for a while in 2001, died last March. Fabio Casartelli, who was a teammate of Armstrong's on the Motorola team, is the most recent Tour death. He died on a steep mountain descent in 1995.

How about endurance? Over 23 days this year's Tour riders will race in 21 stages for a total of more than 2000 miles. Oh, and they go right through the Pyrenees and Alps. Marathoners are wimps in comparison.

How about strategy? This is why I love the Tour. Every stage presents a variety of formidable collective action problems. I will give just one example. Let's say you are in a breakaway with nine other guys. It's fifty miles to the finish line. Now, if all of you work together -- sharing time blocking wind at the front -- then the chances are good that all nine of your will reach the finish line ahead of the pack. Ah, but which one of you will win the stage? Chances are it will be rider with the freshest legs? You can stay fresh by refusing to share the work. You stay in back. But, of course, if no one agrees to do work at the front, if your little breakaway becomes a disorganized blob and what inevitably happens is the peloton washes past you like a wave.

Unfortunately the Tour commits two cardinal sins, sins that guarantee that it will remain a marginal sport in the U.S. Americans rarely do well at it, a fact that makes Lance Armgstrong's success even more amazing, given how few Americans have ever even ridden in the Tour. (By the way, almost certainly this year has the strongest set of American riders ever. Aside from Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer are legitimate contenders for a top ten GC finish.) Second, and the gravest sin of all, it is not a sport that translates well on television.

Friday, July 04, 2003
 
Let's not let petty facts get in the way of a good diatribe: Here is what Charles Krauthammer says in a recent column:

A foreigner might then ask: What exactly is your Constitution? Now we know the answer. The Constitution is whatever Justice Sandra Day O'Connor says it is. On any given Monday.

That modifier is crucial, because she does change her mind, and when she does, so does the Constitution. Seventeen years ago, she ruled anti-sodomy laws constitutional. Now she thinks otherwise.

Uhh no. Seventeen years ago she sided with the majority in a Bowers decision that declared that a sodomy law -- in this case a sodomy law that made no distinction by sexual orientation -- did not violate constitutional privacy protections. This time around she declared that the Texas law in Lawrence violated the constitutional Equal Protections since it criminalized only same-sex sodomy. In her decision she made a point of stating that she still believed privacy did not apply and that Bowers should stand.

It sounds pretty damn consistent to me. And am I only the one who found this business of our being held captive by her changing mind more than a little sexist?

Wednesday, July 02, 2003
 
The Presidential Politics of Corn (isn't always as it appears): I think it is easy to overstate the importance of the Iowa caucus, the first significant event in the presidential nomination sweepstakes. (I'm sure I'll be back on this topic later.) Iowa -- with New Hampshire, the first primary -- acts as a filter, not an anointer. Yet, it's hard to deny that candidates have to take Iowa seriously and this gives the state important policy leverage, especially where it concerns corn, the National Crop of Iowa.

Here is an article I came across while in Omaha. It tells the story of how Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, and Graham all recently voted to boost ethanol consumption in the United States. Wrapped up in the flimsiest of conservation bows, the ethanol program is really about pork. No, not the other favorite product of Iowa (they love their pigs, believe me). Rather this regards the pork of the "please send me your tax dollars" variety. It turns out that in 1994 Lieberman, Kerry, and Graham voted against the ethanol program. Now, suddenly, for some reason, all three have seen the ethanol-fueled light.

The article draws the obvious conclusion, that each senator switched solely because of the Iowa caucus. (Edwards was not yet a senator in 1994.) It's an easy conclusion to reach if you think about the way the campaign works. In contrast to the other states, candidates spend months and months in Iowa and New Hampshire, going from small meeting to small meeting. And in the Iowa version of these intimate soirees, the candidates inevitably get asked, point blank, what they think about the ethanol question. Unlike most policy areas this one offers virtually no waffle room. For Iowans you are for it or against it, and candidates who are against it won't do well there. Thus, most candidates sign off the ethanol program. (In 2000 John McCain maintained his opposition to the program; he finished fifth in Iowa, behind even Keyes and Bauer.)

Yet, always the social scientist I'm a little unconvinced by the article. So the three senators switched their votes. Does this necessarily mean they did it because of Iowa? Maybe it really was because circumstances had changed since 1994. Namely, in 1994 a prominent ethanol alternative was MTBE, which later proved to be a major environmental hazard.

So let's go to the videotape. Fifty senators remain in the Senate from 1994. Of that group, twenty-seven voted against ethanol the first time around. Were there any of this group, aside from the current presidential candidates, who voted pro-ethanol in 2003? Yes. Plenty.

Here is a list of all the 1994 anti-ethanol senators who voted pro-ethanol in 2003: Biden (D-DE), Bingaman (D-NM), Breaux (D-LA), Byrd (D-WV), Cochran (R-MS), Domenici (R-NM), Hatch (R-UT), Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman (D-CT), Lott (R-MS), Murray (D-WA), Rockefeller (D-WV), Shelby (was D, now R-AL), and Stevens (R-AK). Out of the twenty-three original ethanol opposers, fourteen voted in favor of ethanol in 2003. Sure, so Kerry and Lieberman were part of this list, but frankly it is extremely hard to say their switch on Iowa came about because they are running for president, given that twenty-one other senators who are not running for president -- and most of these will never run for president -- switched their votes, too. What about Bob Graham? It turns out that while he did oppose ethanol in 1994, he did not even vote this time around. So it is misleading to say Graham "...helped the Senate pass a measure..." boosting ethanol consumption.