Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are you listening, Mr Blatter?

Women’s football isn’t as popular as men’s football. This is partly because the standard isn’t as high, because it’s not as professionalized, because there’s less money in it, because it’s not as popular. There’s a vicious circle for you. I’d rather women’s football was more popular, the way women’s tennis and athletics are. Why? I suppose it’s because I like equal opportunities, football, and women. There also seems to be a lot of interest in playing football among women, and I’d like to see that encouraged. That means increasing its popularity.

One thing we could do is make female footballers wear different clothes. That’s Sepp Blatter’s idea, and he’s in charge. But I don’t think it would work as well as my idea, and I’m worried it’d alter the priorities of the game and its marketers. Blatter seems to want to increase the popularity of women’s football by making it more like other popular things women do, like waiting tables in Hooters. I’d rather make it more popular by making it more like other popular kinds of football. Men’s football, for example.

At the moment there are two sets of leagues, one for men and one for women. Clubs often have an affiliated women’s team as well as a men’s team, but their fortunes aren’t tied to one another, except in that the financial success of one might subsidise the other. Most football fans care what happens to the men’s team, and don’t care what happens to the women’s one, even if it’s from their club. This afternoon Arsenal’s men’s team blew its most recent chance of ending its six-year silverware drought, and the Arsenal faithful are not consoled that during that period their women’s team has been very successful indeed. There’s a lot that’s incomprehensible about the mind of an Arsenal fan, but this isn’t. The women’s team isn’t as good, and not just because of biology. They’re only semi-professional, and this means they don’t have the time to become as good as the men. It’s not their fault they’re worse, and it’s not the fans' fault they’re not that interested. It doesn’t make them sexist. The situation is different from that of British Tennis.

Here’s my idea. Have one set of leagues, and at the higher levels of the game a club has to turn out a female team as well as a male one. The women compete against women, and the men against men. The women’s results score league points just as the men’s do. (Maybe not quite as many while it's being phased in, but in that case a timetable for parity should be in place from the start.) As such, clubs are incentivised to put their considerable financial weight behind making their women’s teams as good as a team of women can be, on pain of relegation. The fans have to care about the women’s team because their fortunes are tied to those of the men’s team, but this is fine because the women are playing football as well as Serena Williams plays tennis. There’s nothing about the way I’m envisaging this changing football that I don’t like.

Of course you give the clubs a few years’ warning so they can get their acts together, but there’s already plenty of infrastructure there, and there are already plenty of talented girls who’d like to grow up to be professional footballers if the opportunities were there. As it is, the female Maradona didn’t play football professionally at all, and the female Messi’s wasting half her time as plumber or a librarian or something. What a waste.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The problem of evil people

What are you supposed to think when you really admire someone, and you think they’re perfect, and then you become convinced that if they were perfect things would not be as they are? You change your mind, of course, but what do you change it to? I suppose you could decide that the person in question must have never existed in the first place. Or if you think philosophical zombies are possible, you could decide that their body existed, but was an automaton. But in practice, you tend to decide that the person exists, and has a conscious mind as you’d always thought, but isn’t perfect. I think we’re sensible to update our beliefs in this way. If a child's first clue that their parents aren't perfect is when they find the Santa Claus story isn't true, they should stop believing in Santa but keep believing in their parents.

Now, some people go through a phase of thinking there’s an omnipotent god, perfect in every way, but then they decide that if that was how things were, then the world around us would be different. There’d be less suffering, or no suffering, or organisms would seem better designed, or people would experience an amount of suffering proportional to the amount they caused, or something like that. This is understandable: the original opinion is a common one to which many people are brought up, and the so-called Problem of Evil is a tough problem for it. What I find hard to fathom is the reasoning behind a common response to the problem. Rather than decide that the god they’d thought was perfect isn’t perfect after all, they decide it doesn’t exist. But isn’t that crazy? If there’s evidence for divine agency, then there’s evidence for a divine agent as good as the actions and omissions attributable to it. If I’m right, then the proper response to the Problem of Evil is not atheism, or at least not the kind of atheism which says there are no gods.

One reason people might respond this way is because they held the former opinion on the basis of authority, rather than more direct evidence for divine agency. The former believer becomes convinced that the authority had something wrong, and this casts doubt on the rest. The beliefs in the god’s existence and its perfection aren’t independent because they have the same source. It'd be like the kid realising reindeer can't fly and inferring that the whole Santa story is probably nonsense. This makes some sense, but not much. The more the authority was trusted in the first place, the stranger it is to throw out the whole story on the basis of one incorrect detail, and the less the authority was trusted, the less likely it is that they were the sole or even primary basis of the person's belief. (Unless they're a four year-old.)

Another reason the perfection-belief and existence-belief might be dependent on one another is that someone might think an omnipotent, omniscient god would have to be perfect. There have been people who thought that all cases of wrongdoing resulted from either our ignorance or  embodiment, but I don’t think it’s very usual to think this now, except insofar as all agency requires embodiment, and the believer in divine agency wouldn’t have thought it did. So responding to the problem with atheism would suggest some rather old-fashioned views about the sources of wrongdoing.

The third explanation I can think of is that people decide that they have no interest in what gods there may be unless they’re perfect, or at least very good indeed. So they don’t stop believing as such; they just ignore the issue. I expect this sometimes happens, but it seems reckless, especially if the imperfect god still goes in for divine retribution. Indeed, it’d be understandable if a raised credence in an imperfect god went with a raised credence in Hell. It’s also worth pointing out that this attitude has no place in serious rational inquiry into how things are.

I’m an atheist. It’s not because of the Problem of Evil; it’s because I don’t see any evidence for divine agency, whether of the sort I’d like to happen or the sort I wouldn’t. And I think the Problem of Evil does pose a serious problem to the widely held belief that there’s a perfect god. I don’t, however, think the problem by itself offers much support to the view, also widely held, that there aren’t any gods at all. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick and nobody thinks it does. If I have, you can get back to what you were doing. But if you’re an atheist because there’s so much suffering in the world, then I’d be interested to know exactly how that works.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Czechs and balances

Suppose a country was both democratic enough to have some human rights legislation and undemocratic enough not to allow women the vote. Suppose an unelected judge ruled that the latter was in breach of women’s human rights. Then suppose the elected executive of the country said that the judge should mind his own business because he wasn’t elected. That would sound a bit rich, wouldn’t it?

One of the advantages of having elected executives accountable to an unelected judiciary is that when it comes to trampling on the interests of minorities and the disenfranchised there are lines that won’t be crossed, even if crossing them would appeal to the majority of people with votes. An example would be the death penalty. For a long time the death penalty was supported by a majority of people in my country, but by a minority of the MPs they elected. Perhaps it still is. The MPs resisted the temptation to bring it back, even though this might well have been a vote-winner. I’m glad they did, but I understand that since the Human Rights Act came in they no longer have the option, and I’m glad they don’t. A lot of what goes on here in the name of fighting Terror sails pretty close to the wind too, and it’s comforting to know that no matter how hysterical the public or how soon the election, there are some people in Strasbourg we can appeal to if things start going a bit Kafka.

I am, of course, thinking about the current debate over giving prisoners the vote. It’s been suggested that the decision shouldn’t be made by EU judges, because they’re unelected. As well as being a bit rich, I think this is exactly the sort of decision which should be made by unelected people. This isn’t because I want prisoners to have the vote, although I do. (Then again, I’d lower the voting age to thirteen if it was left up to me.) It’s because when it comes to the tyranny of the majority over the disenfranchised, elected officials can’t be trusted. Prisoners are among the most vulnerable people in society, and as such they’re exactly the kind of people human rights legislation and an independent judiciary are there to protect.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stupid idea for new electoral system

I live in a safe Labour seat, so how I vote in a general election doesn’t affect its outcome. With this in mind, at the last election I voted Green, because the more Green voters there are, the more incentive the main parties have to try to poach them by adopting the kind of beardy Guardian-reading policies that I support. Spending five minutes adding one to that statistic seemed rational enough to me. It would however be nice if everyone’s vote affected the outcome of the election, so I’ve invented a voting system which comes closer to having that feature.

The basic idea is that instead of MPs having one vote each in the House of Commons, they get the number of votes they received in the election. The constituencies would be larger, each returning the (say) five candidates who received the most votes. This shares with proportional representation the features that people’s votes are more likely to matter and that representation is approximately proportional. It doesn’t have PR’s unpopular feature of giving a lot of power to whoever draws up the party lists, since candidates run individually and not as a name on a list. In fact, the parties would have even less power over their MPs than they currently do, because it’s easier for a rebel to run successfully as an independent if they only have to come in the top five, not the top one. It’s also more fine-grained than PR, in a way which should really come into its own with all the coalition-forming that goes on in parliaments with proportional electoral systems.

The problems with it are numerous, of course, but the ugliest feature of it is that Westminster would be crawling with MPs from the BNP and other unsavoury parties which the first past the post system is so good at marginalising. They’d be fourth- and fifth-class MPs, of course, but they’d be there, making their unsavoury speeches and presumably getting paid. I’d be happy for MPs with fewer votes to get paid less, but these people have still got to eat. I’m inclined to think that the price of living in a democracy is being governed by people who represent the views of your fellow citizens, even if that includes people who think that ideally the people in a country would all be the same colour. It’s perfectly possible for the mainstream MPs to marginalise them within parliament. Their speeches would slow things down, but so does not having electronic voting, and we haven’t done anything about that.

It’s hard to tell exactly how the system I’m suggesting would pan out. One possibility is that parliamentary committees would be swamped by stupid people in black shirts, and whatever it is that the committees do would be done much worse.  Another possibility is that people whose votes now mattered would vote with more care, more information and in larger numbers, and power would move from the parties to the people. Popular parties might put out multiple candidates, inviting voters with no preference between them to vote for one if their surname began with A-L and the other if M-Z, splitting their large voteshares equally and keeping the BNP out that way. Alternatively, it might turn out that the fascists are a majority who have been victims of a heretofore insoluble co-ordination problem, and we’d all be doomed. So maybe it’s a good thing that my suggestion is definitely never going to be put into practice. (Next week: direct democracy by text-message referendums.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's harsh, but does it work?

West Brom are a popular club. They play entertaining football, they don’t expect to spend more than a few seasons at a stretch in the top flight, and when they play against local rivals Aston Villa I’d rather cheer with Adrian Chiles than David Cameron. ‘The Baggies’ is an endearing nickname, too.

In spite of these four good reasons to the contrary, I’m going to be booing West Brom for the rest of the season. I hope they go down ignominiously, and if they don’t get their act together and go back to being a club Chiles can be proud of, then I hope they spend a good few seasons in the doldrums where they can think about what they’ve done. And what exactly have they done? They’ve sacked their charming manager from his first big job after he’d secured them automatic promotion last season and had been meeting if not exceeding expectations in the notoriously difficult first season back in the Premiership. Then they replaced him, not with someone like Mourinho or Hiddink who really would have been a step up, but with the latest journeyman to find himself out of work. Sound familiar? It should do. Those paragons of realism Newcastle United did the same thing in December.

Now, the most successful English club in recent decades has been Manchester United, and they’ve stuck with the same manager over that time. Even the dimmest misinterpreter of statistics will realise that there’s a chance the managerial stability was caused by the success and not the other way round. So if you want to know whether clubs benefit from sacking managers who seem to be losing their stuff, it’s not as simple as comparing stability with success. We should also be wary of being overly impressed by bounces in performance after a sacking, partly because short-term results have a lot of random noise in them, and partly because it doesn’t take great results to do better than a series of losses, and usually managers are sacked after a series of losses.

I’d have a lot more sympathy for boards sacking managers so frequently if there was evidence that it was good business, but it’s hard know what to measure. I’m not sure how to do it, but I’d be surprised if Steven Levitt couldn’t work it out. It’s right up his street. It’s as if he read somewhere that Galileo said “measure what is measurable, and make measurable what isn’t” and thought “you know, that’s not such a bad idea!”. Freakonomics isn’t the best popular economics book I’ve read; Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist is. But finding out whether sacking Di Matteo was a good idea is definitely Levitt’s department.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A plea for a metaphor and a construction

When people who are trying to appeal to everyone end up producing rubbish it can happen in one of two ways. If they want to produce something good they will look at all the things everyone can appreciate and make the best, and they regret that they couldn’t make something better without losing some of their audience. If their priority is to make things easy for themselves, they will look at all the things everyone can enjoy and make the one that takes least effort. The former group regret having to lower their standards, and the latter group regret not being able to lower them further.

When people talk about appealing to the lowest common denominator, that’s a maths metaphor for producing rubbish in pursuit of mass appeal, but which kind is it? I think it’s used for both. It shouldn’t be. It makes perfect sense to describe what the lazy group is doing, but we should say the group that regrets having to dumb down is appealing to the highest common factor. This pedant agrees with me that ‘lowest common denominator’ is often used when ‘highest common factor’ makes much more sense, but doesn’t acknowledge a role for LCD at all. But there is one. (I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out which of his examples should have been which.) The distinction’s important, because one accusation is more scathing than the other. So let’s all start making the distinction correctly, because it’s unfair not to, and it’s really neat.

While I’m on the subject, people often say they don’t want to do something to mean that they want not to do it. I hardly ever hear (other) people saying ‘want not to’. But we all distinguish between ‘try not to’ and ‘not try to’, and the want not to/not want to distinction is exactly parallel. If you can understand one you can understand both, and as far as I can see they're equally useful. So let’s all start making that distinction as well.