Mike Pence might have something here

There’s some understandable bristling at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s announcement of a “state-run” news service. called “Just IN.” It sounds like an memo from Vladimir Putin’s desk, not an initiative launch by a erstwhile darling of the conservative movement. The idea of government feeding the media, rather than the institutions having a healthy and mutual skepticism, doesn’t sit well.

But maybe this is where media is going. The other night, I watched reruns of Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary Baseball. It originally aired on PBS, but now it’s home is, appropriately enough, the MLB Network. Last Saturday, the NFL Network aired highlight shows for each Super Bowl up to this year. (I tuned in just as Plaxico Burress was scoring a game winner and not shooting himself in the leg.) The New York Yankees, the NBA, the NHL, and several major college sports conferences have staked out their own spot on the dial; Disney and Oprah Winfrey have done the same. Netflix, Amazon, heck even Overstock produce their own entertainment programming. More and more, those who produce the content want to control the delivery channels as well.

Additionally, Just IN gives Pence a direct conduit to the people outside of the filter of any bias from reporters, producers, or media outlets.

Creating a state-run news agency immediately conjures images of Soviet-style Propaganda. In reality, Pence may simply be ahead of the times in an evolving media landscape.

Three ways Max Scherzer’s contract is typical of Washington, D.C.

Tonight, President Barack Obama will use his second-to-last State of the Union address to ask for more taxes. (The economy is apparently doing very well, so America can tap the brakes on silly, frivolous things like college savings and job creation). Since this is his solution to the nation’s wealth disparity, it certainly helps his case that Washington, D.C. welcomes Max Scherzer this week.

1. It’s expensive: The newest Washington National’s contract totals out at $210 million. (Why, that’s McLean money around these parts!) The next highest known offer was Detroit’s extension offer last spring, reportedly for $144 million over the same seven-year span. A week ago, observers of the game were wondering where Scherzer could expect a massive contract. This week, we were reminded that Washington D.C. is always willing to spend more money.

2. Future generations will foot the bill: Half of Scherzer’s contract is deferred, so the $210 million is actually paid out over seven years. If, after the 2021 season, he decides to sign elsewhere or retires, the Nats will still have to keep sending Scherzer checks. The front office will have to account for the equivalent of a seven year, $105 million contract for a ghost player who isn’t even on the roster. (How embarassing would it be if Scherzer signs with, say, the Mets in 2022 and pitches them past the Nats in the playoffs while still on the Nats’ payroll? The Mets know this pain, since they are still on the hook for another 20 years of Bobby Bonilla payments.)

3. It’s not as lucrative as it sounds thanks to inflation: Scherzer has to be excited, but can’t blow it all on some fancy record player just yet. By deferring half of that money, it’s subject to the effects of inflation. In 2015 dollars, the actual value of Scherzer’s deal is closer to $172 million. That’s still enough to eke out a living, but it’s $30 million on paper that’s heading out the window. (Depending on what the President gets from tonight’s State of the Union wish list, the effects of inflation could be even greater.)

All that said, signing Scherzer is actually a smart deal for the Nationals – if they play their cards right. Local sports pundits are questioning the move because the Nats had one of baseball’s best starting rotations already, and have two pitchers hitting the free agent market next offseason. Why sign Scherzer when they could sign Jordan Zimmermann and/or Doug Fister? Or, why not bolster an offense that went through an 18-inning postseason game and barely threatened to rally?

In the short term, Scherzer gives the Nats an unquestioned front-of-the-rotation starter; more important, it gives the team flexibility for next year’s offseason. Both Fister and Zimmermann figure to turn down qualifying offers to test free agency, meaning the Washington can let them both walk, pick up two early draft picks as compensation, and still have a very good rotation heading into 2016. (They can also trade a pitcher this year if the right opportunity presents itself.)

It may not have helped any of the team’s weaknesses, but the Scherzer deal gives the Nationals the talent and flexibility to maintain their strengths for the next several seasons. That’s a good foundation for improvement.

If they don’t screw it up, that is. But wouldn’t that be typical of Washington, D.C., too?

The NCAA makes up for a bad call

Joe Paterno is dead. We can assume that, to the extent that final justice exists, he is getting whatever he deserves. His long time defensive coordinator and convicted predator Jerry Sandusky is in jail, where he can’t hurt anyone. Justice for him is delayed but inevitable.

The NCAA was right to reinstate the Penn State football wins which were stripped from the program after it was revealed Sandusky as a serial pedophile. It was a trivial penalty to begin with because the NCAA had no place in a scandal of this magnitude.

The scandal that rocked State College was unusual for big-time college football. This wasn’t under-the-table money to encourage recruits, or extra perks for current players; this was a legitimate question about whether a former coach was using his charity to abuse children – and whether the leaders of Penn State, including Paterno, swept it under the rug.

The sports czars have no authority over what was, and is, a criminal matter, but their actions are understandable. When big news breaks, people tend to look for immediate action. Penn State fired Paterno quickly and tore a statue of him down, despite little understanding of how or if he was involved. The NCAA stripped Penn State of its wins from 1998 to 2011, despite little understanding of how or if the school had moved to cover up Sandusky’s abuses.

But in a situation like this, that the scandal’s main actors are associated with the football program is irrelevant. Ultimately, Sandusky and any enablers had to answer to law enforcement, and Penn State’s board of trustees had to decide if the failures in leadership necessitated changes in leadership. The NCAA deals with sports, which really isn’t all that important.

Answering the Sandusky allegations with a football-related response doesn’t give the situation the attention and gravity it deserves. But I’m sure it made some people at the NCAA headquarters feel like they accomplished something.

Gov. Jindal likes Jesus. So what?

Reason – which I usually like – is upset with 2016 GOP hopeful Bobby Jindal for urging people “to turn back to God.” Jindal is quoted saying, “America’s in desperate need of a spiritual revival… We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God.”

As a libertarian, Reason’s Nick Gillespie reasons that Jindal’s perceived preaching is distracting from the real demons which vex our lovely nation:

No, it’s not time to “turn back to God,” especially when it comes to politics and public policy. What ails the government is not a surplus of religiosity but a nearly complete failure to deal with practical issues of spending versus revenue, creating a simple and fair tax system, reforming entitlements, and getting real about the limits of America’s ability to control every corner of the globe. God has nothing to do with any of that.

First, that Jindal was speaking to a group of religious leaders makes the Governor’s comments slightly more relevant. Jindal was not making his case to a broad audience, but trying to incite action among people who care deeply about their faith and who lead others who care deeply about their faith. For an audience like this, Jindal has to make the discussion religious; why else should these people care about politics?

More importantly, it’s worth taking a look at what roles religious institutions can play in society. Congregations socialize people. They coordinate an economic and emotional safety net which society has deemed necessary. In the absence of religious participation, where have those duties rested? It’s been the government, which was enacted less effective social welfare programs – entitlements funded directly or indirectly by a combination of complex taxes and reckless deficits.

These are the exact problems which Gillespie puts front and center, minus foreign policy. Perhaps he is correct that “God has nothing to do with any of that,” but overlooking religious participation as a part of the solution misses the point. One of the really good things that came out of the more recent Bush administration was the concept of faith-based solutions to social problems. If you have a strong group of people who want to help cure social ills, and the government doesn’t have to spend tax dollars on it, why would you try to quench that desire?

Gillespie is correct that Jindal – or any Republican – does need to be mindful of the way they talk about such things. Political rallies cannot sound like a revival meeting, and the American people – religious or not – generally don’t like being preached at outside of church (and sometimes not even inside). Yet churchgoing voters are out there, their views are important and, ultimately, that their altruistic tendencies can create alternatives to lessen the strain on the social safety net.

A Winter’s Tale, as told by Emails from Fairfax County Public Schools

“Now this could only happen …in a town like this.” – Frank Sinatra. 

Fairfax County’s Public Schools (FCPS) have had the kind of week usually reserved for an embattled politician who sticks his foot in his mouth. Poor decisions have led to explanations, and then to further explanations, over-corrections, still more explanations, and apologies. In three days, parents of Fairfax County schoolchildren received nine emails.

The first missive came bright and early on January 6, at 7:49 a.m. The simple message, in its entirety:

The inclement weather may result in your child’s bus being delayed this morning. Please be patient and safe if you are driving this morning.

There was no official delay, since the weather didn’t look like it was going to be that bad early in the day.

But as Beltway denizens know, the storm was stronger than expected. What was supposed to be a dusting of snow ended up as a couple of inches. Buses couldn’t get around. Neither could teachers. Outrage had its snow tires on, though, and it managed to reach the school district’s Facebook page. Because Fairfax County rests in the shadow of Your Nation’s Capital, the school district naturally had to reply with a public statement, which came via email at 10:15 a.m.:

Dear Parents:

We apologize for the difficulties the weather caused this morning. Please know that significant area government entities were coordinating at a very early hour. The decision was made with the best information we had very early this morning. Needless to say, the conditions were far worse than anticipated.

Weather conditions are expected to improve around midday. At this time, we are planning to dismiss schools at their normal dismissal time, however, we are continuing to closely monitor the situation and will keep parents apprised.

Just over an hour later, a follow-up email declared all evening activities and afternoon pre-school cancelled. (A neighbor whose child is in the afternoon preschool broke that news to a Fairfax County school bus driver, who had not been clued in.)

That must not have been enough for some parents. Just before 2:00 p.m. came a fourth email, entitled “Weather Update.” It was a second apology for the decision to open schools:

It is clear that our decision to keep schools open today was the wrong call given the intensity of this weather system. We are very sorry for that. We have heard from many of our families and we are listening. We thank you for your patience and working with us through this very difficult circumstance… Our focus now is to get our students and staff home safely this afternoon. Students who were unable to get to school today will be given excused absences.

Please know we will be going over our procedures and processes to make every improvement possible to avoid the situation we encountered this morning. We are closely monitoring the weather conditions and will make a decision with regard to schools opening tomorrow and will let families know, through our normal communication processes, as soon as possible.

“Going over our procedures” is, of course, complete bull meant to sound like deep introspection. “As soon as possible” was, predictably, quick. The follow-up email came at 6:12 p.m. As expected, there would be a two-hour delay on Wednesday.

For those in “real” America, Fairfax County surrounds Washington, D.C. and Arlington to the south and west. It covers lots of area, and it is common for one side of the county to have different weather from the other side. The school district covers all these areas, from communities around Alexandria banded with major roads to the more bucolic neighborhoods hugging the Potomac out by great falls. There were plenty of roads untreated; school buses would have had a hard time getting around on Wednesday.

Fairfax’s snow and ice removal system is solar-powered: they just let the stuff melt. While environmentally friendly, nasty side effects include re-frozen black ice spots lurking in the neighborhoods. As the sun set on Wednesday, FCPS sent out what was their only email of the day, alerting parents that the following day would see a second consecutive two-hour delay.

Less that 15 hours later – at 7:22 a.m. – Fairfax sent yet another email, cancelling school for Thursday. In the 48 hours since the surprise winter weather, Fairfax County had gone from a regularly scheduled day, to a two-hour delay, to a full-blown snow day. To explain their backward, bizarro reaction, FCPS made yet another statement. For the second time in three days, the email subject read, “Today’s Weather Decision”:

The decision to change from a two hour delayed opening to an all day closing for schools was made today because, as our bus drivers reported to work, it was evident that many of our buses would not start in this morning’s cold weather… In addition, the refreeze of snow and ice on residential streets and sidewalks also made walking and travel treacherous.

Not to pile on to what has been a week full of criticism for FCPS, but while it’s cold here this week, it has been colder in the past. School buses have surely survived worse. Also, why are the “treacherous” sidewalks and their safety implication afterthought to buses running on time? The snow day was either an obvious over-correction to Tuesday’s criticism or a subtle middle finger to the critics.

At least, in a show of progress, FCPS only had to apologize once for yesterday’s snow day. Their final email of the week (to date) announced today’s two-hour delay. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine emails in 72 hours, with all the message discipline and conviction of Trent Lott’s ill-advised BET interview after he was accused of wishing Strom Thurmond a happy birthday.

Look on the bright side, Fairfax County Public Schools: The next chance of wintry weather is coming up on Monday. You might just get a do-over!

The case against Ken Griffey Jr. (Or, there will never be a unanimous Hall of Famer, but that’s ok.)

After the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2015 class yesterday, some of the annual grousing about the results centered on winning vote totals. Arizona and Boston writers wondered why Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were not unanimous selections. That echoes a 2013 Joe Posnanski article which claims at least 20 previous inductees should have been unanimous selections – the likes of Tom Seaver, Cal Ripken, and Willie Mays. Speculation about how close Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will get is already underway.

Rivera and Jeter might get deservedly close, but neither will be unanimous. Neither will Ken Griffey Jr. when he reaches the ballot next year. The reason why is in the nature of the vote: Writers are asked to name up to ten former players who belong in the Hall of Fame. One player’s vote total versus another’s doesn’t matter – it’s not like only the top four vote-getters make the cut. Everyone named on 75% of the ballots gets in. Conceivably, there could be up to 12 or 13 inductees in any given year.

Look at the list of potential candidates next year. Griffey and Trevor Hoffman seems like slam dunks, and Mike Piazza looks likely. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines have gotten a good amount of buzz this year and may creep closer. Then there’s the steroid caucus – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and a handful of others – who will get significant votes but probably not make the cut because of admitted or suspected PED use. Just below them are a group of players who were good but not no-doubt Hall of Famers. Each Fred McGriff, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, or Jim Edmonds will have their case made by writers who saw them play.

Let’s pretend we’re an elector. Our ballot has ten spots. We vote for Griffey, Hoffman, Piazza, Bagwell, and Raines. We think Bonds and Clemens would be in even without the steroid-fueled parts of their career, so we include them, along with Gary Sheffield and his 509 home runs. That’s eight spots taken, we have two more for McGriff, Schilling, Mussina. But wait! Billy Wagner’s 422 saves and Garrett Anderson’s 2,500 hits are still there, not to mention the old YouTube clips of Edmonds playing centerfield. (Seriously, compare this one to Matthew McConaughey’s grab in Angels in the Outfield. Sidebar: How loaded was the cast of Angles in the Outfield? You had Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Adrien Brody, and McConaughey in a movie where Danny Glover and Tony Danza get top billing. That’s pinch hitting Hemmerling for Mitchell.)

Assuming you believe strongly that at least 11 of the 14 players listed belong in the Hall of Fame, whom do you leave off? Remember the loaded ballot means any of those candidates could plummet below the 5% threshold and not get a second chance, so dropping the least worthy and waiting until next year may not be the best strategy.

The most rational candidate is Griffey. In future years, it would be Rivera, or Jeter.

Griffey will surely be named on almost every ballot, so one vote one way or the other wouldn’t make a difference in his election. But one vote could help some of those other, not-quite-sure-thing candidates stay on the ballot or build momentum for future years. If a writer seriously believes in ten candidates beyond the shoe-ins, he or she should absolutely vote this way.

In any election, blowouts reduce turnout. Knowing Griffey, Jeter, and Rivera will top 95% means writers holding the torch for lesser candidates have every reason to leave the no-brainers off their ballot.

Eric Metaxas missed the mark, but Lawrence Krauss missed the dartboard

As the world shakes off the dust of the Holiday Break and gets into 2015, here’s something to catch up on from the last week of last year. On Christmas, Eric Metaxas wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed (here’s the Google search) claiming, in its headline, that scientific findings bolster the evidence that God exists.

Specifically, he cites the fact that, despite constantly finding new planets, our astronomers aren’t finding any new life (Area 51 rumors notwithstanding). Predictably, atheists bristled; Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote an unpublished letter to the editor that sought to debunk Metaxes’s claim.

Krauss correctly answers Metaxas’s first main point – that the known conditions for life to exist on Earth are not the same as the conditions that might give rise to other life forms. (Heck, are we even looking for life forms based on silicon or boron? They found some on Star Trek.) The fact that we haven’t found little green persons is a poor point and Metaxas should have left it alone.

Krauss doesn’t mention it, but even Metaxas’s points about the numerically unlikely evolution of life on Earth don’t hold up well. Those who believe in infinite universes with infinitely various timelines would suggest that, if every single possible outcome is represented, then there would have to be a universe were Earth existed as it does today.

Krauss misses Metaxas’s best point – and, since he buries it so deep, maybe he missed it too:

[T]he odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here… Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? [Emphasis added.]

The key phrase is “talking about existing.” As our scientists explore the universe, they find that things make sense. Early mathematicians discovered that every single circle has the same ratio of its circumference to its diameter (pi). Before he put figs in cookies, Sir Isaac Newton discovered laws of physics. The gravitational force between any two objects in the universe is determined using a constant value, which physicists just pinned down this year (though approximations have been around for centuries). It’s not just that the universe developed as it did, but that it develops according to laws and rules which is somewhat amazing.

Krauss replies that the appearance of design is not design, and he’s right. There’s nothing there to prove that a cosmic Creator wrote the laws. Yet it’s undeniable the laws are there. There’s a parallel there from the Book of Genesis (1:2), too:

[T]he earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is what makes the supposed divide between religion and science so fascinating: The themes of the scripture don’t contradict scientific discoveries, nor vice versa. (The literal words may be a different story, but it’s hard to be overly concerned about that when factoring in the difficulty of translation, changes in humanity’s frame of reference, and linguistic changes over multiple millenia.)

Krauss and I may agree that Metaxas didn’t make the strongest case he could have in his Christmas op-ed, but it seems we are coming from different points. The snide derision of “Christian apologists,” implies that anyone who points out the similarity between scientific findings and Christian teachings, or who believes in intelligent design, is some kind of Lyle Lanley huckster peddling a bill of goods rather than someone looking for common ground with secular scientists.

One might call that type of opposition fanatical, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just devout.