Category Archives: gaming the rules

Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy

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The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.

BOATY

The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.

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The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller

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Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.

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When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.

On gaming the game

A fan-made video highlighting flagrant fouls on Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin has been going viral in the U.S., Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From a New York Times article on the video, which you can watch for yourself below:

Piecing together clips of Lin being whacked in the face, clotheslined, bleeding, tumbling to the floor — all without ever drawing a flagrant foul — Kuei tried to convey that Lin, an American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, was the victim of excessive physicality from opponents and insufficient protection from the league and its referees.

[…]

With its bruising simplicity, it revived questions about the fairness and consistency of officiating in the N.B.A. and led to conversations about latent racial biases. 

Fans of Lin, especially among the Asian community, have interpreted the video as evidence that Lin is being treated unfairly because of his race. I haven’t watched enough of the NBA to know whether this is true, though there does seem to be a pattern of referees not calling fouls on Lin in cases that are pretty clear-cut. Moreover, in the Times article, ESPN reporter Tom Haberstroh notes that “the 813 fouls that Lin had drawn over the past three seasons represented the highest total for a guard — and the third highest number for any position — without a flagrant foul, a particularly hard foul that can lead to an ejection.”

The video raises some interesting questions about buck-passing in unfair games. Suppose his race is a factor, due to referees’ explicit or implicit racial bias. Then, suppose opponents know referees won’t call fouls on them if they overstep their boundaries with Lin, so they take advantage of this fact to play more aggressively with him. This form of gaming the system would seem unsportsmanlike in most contexts, but part of professional sports (if not other leagues) is that playing to win is the dominant, and often overriding, motive for players. Playing to win often requires playing the refs. This is as much a part of the game as any official rule-bound move. For example, the practice of diving in professional soccer is the new normal.

In this context, I’m not sure if players would be wrong to shrug their shoulders and say “Blame the system” while clocking Lin in the face. But compare this to the question of individual responsibility for collectively caused racial problems in everyday life. Surely there’d be something seriously wrong there about passing the buck to “the system” when one could just refuse to play by the rules of an unfair game.

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 3: Bernie Sanders’ “Endorsements”

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair and unfair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was criticized for running misleading ads in the days before the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries. One ad in particular, titled “Endorsed” (see below), contains excerpts from editorials in Nashua Telegraph and The Valley News praising Sanders. While neither newspaper actually endorsed Sanders, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise (I highly recommend watching the ad—it’s only thirty seconds long and quite cunning).

The accusation:Trump tweetCarroll, the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, called Sanders’ ad “deceptive.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a “briefing” outlining Sanders’ alleged habit of using misinformation. Without explicitly accusing him of unethical behavior, one of her ads on Sanders closes with the question, “Why is Bernie Sanders misleading voters?” A Newsweek piece titled “Advocacy Groups Call Foul on Sanders Campaign in Iowa, Nevada,” reports that some have accused the Sanders campaign of “playing dirty.”

The accused’s response:

During a recent debate, Sanders addressed the accusations (sort of). He said, “As I understand it we did not suggest that we had the endorsement of the newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates and to the best of knowledge that is what we did. So we never said, that somebody a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is, blah, blah, blah, blah was said by the newspaper.”

Categorization:

Nobody claimed the ads were illegal. Like the Cruz mailers (a controversy I examined in an earlier post), the ads also don’t appear to be a violation of everyday moral norms. And though technically not false, the ads (especially the “Endorsed” ad) are clearly misleading—something Sanders never explicitly denied. That leaves us with unfair play. While not illegal or an egregious display of personal immorality, critics appear to believe that the Sanders campaign was ‘playing dirty.’

Other relevant information:

Interestingly, few, if any, pundits (that I know of) have questioned Sanders’ personal integrity in the wake of these controversies. In contrast, many attacked Cruz’s personal integrity after his campaign engaged in similar ‘dirty’ tactics.

Michigan’s Harbaugh Rankles SEC Feathers With Spring Practices at Florida High School Recruit Factory

It’s an understatement to say that college football is a competitive game-both on and off the field. For big football schools like Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia, a successful school year includes a conference championship (or better) and plenty of revenue.

Coaches spend inordinate amounts of time and money recruiting top-tier high school players to ensure they can compete at the highest levels year after year. And typically, schools do their best recruiting relatively close to home. This tends to help the programs of the South Eastern Conference that are located in some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation.

The NCAA attempts to regulate college football recruiting to ensure schools do not become disruptive to high school students and to maintain the illusion of a level playing field between big and small schools (guideline & calendar). The period in which Michigan plans to have practices in Florida is considered a “quiet period” for recruiting, meaning coaches can only have face-to-face contact with college-bound recruits on their own college campuses. The NCAA also only regulates the length and frequency of spring practices, not their locations.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh recently sought and received approval from the NCAA and the Big Ten to conduct spring practices at an elite Florida football high school, IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. This is not the first time the school has conducted “satellite” camps, either. Last year Michigan conducted 11 satellite camps in 7 different states.

SEC coaches strongly dislike this trend:

Nick Saban of Alabama:

Jim McElwain of Florida:

Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss:

Brett Bielema of Arkansas:

And Kirby Smart of Georgia:

“(The Wolverines are) obviously trying to gain a competitive advantage, and that’s their right,” said Smart, who took over the UGA program in December and served as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama the previous eight seasons (2008-15). “But I think the NCAA, in due time, will have to step in.”

Jim Harbaugh responded quickly to Kirby Smart’s comments, stating:

The NCAA recruiting rules exist for a reason. Without them, large universities with lots of money would seek even more elaborate ways to woo the talented high school students they wish to sign. The more money and effort pumped into recruiting, the less effective it would become as all other schools sought to do the same. Eventually, all of the major schools would be spending (even more) massive amounts of time and money for arguably little improvement in recruiting (not to mention the growing distraction to the high school students). Professor Joseph Heath labels this type of behavior a race to the bottom: “in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.”

The NCAA rules help the big schools overcome a collective action problem. These schools have come to a collective agreement about the rules of recruiting to prevent the very race to the bottom that Harbaugh may reignite.

The SEC commissioner is currently seeking to block Harbaugh’s plans through appeals to the NCAA about college players’ “off-time”; if that effort fails, discussions about changing the SEC prohibitions on these so-called “satellite” camps may soon follow. If Harbaugh wants a recruiting war, I’m sure the SEC football programs would be more than willing and able to outspend him in prime southeastern recruiting territory.

So who is right? The SEC coaches who own a distinct geographic advantage on fertile recruiting ground? Or is it Coach Harbaugh who is most likely realizing improved exposure to key recruits by practicing in “warmer weather?”

Harbaugh may not be breaking the letter of the law, but he is pushing the spirit of it. Being a Georgia football fan who has long supported Georgia’s recently started indoor practice facility construction, I’ll remind the readers that Michigan has one of these:

Athletics, Dave Ablauf

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 1: VOTING VIOLATION and the Cruz Campaign Mailers

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what counts as fair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

In recent days, many have accused the Cruz campaign of using “dirty tricks” during his presidential campaign (you can watch Seth Meyers’ Late Night segment on Cruz for a more entertaining rundown of some of his ‘tricks’). While Cruz has provided those of us interested in campaign ethics with an abundance of material to examine, I want to focus on one particular (and lesser known but perhaps more interesting) controversy that Cruz was forced to address in the past month.

Iowans (and a handful of pundit) were upset about the mailers distributed by Cruz staffers insinuating that potential caucus goers’ participation rates would be publicized. In hopes of increasing turnout, Cruz (presumably) sent these notices—which can be seen in the image below—to those his campaign thought would be likely to support him in the caucuses (a strategy that seems to have backfired in the case Tom Hinkelday).

 

Cruz Mailer

The accusation:

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate condemned Cruz’s tactic because “it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.” Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad called the mailers “unethical and unfair.”

The accused’s response:

After criticism about the misleading mailers, Cruz said: “I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.”

Categorization:

After the mailers made headlines, the Cruz campaign was accused of dishonesty by some and outright fraud (but not illegality) by others. As noted above, Pate and Brandstad argued that Cruz was violating the spirit of the competition. Almost all agreed that the mailers were legal (in fact, Donald Trump deleted a tweet where he stated that they were illegal). And though some accused Cruz of personal immorality following the mailer controversy, his campaign was usually criticized on the grounds that it circumvented the rules of the political game by sending the mailers. Moreover, Cruz himself did not deny that the mailers were deceptive and manipulative (perhaps implicitly acknowledging that, in his view, deception and manipulation have a place in campaigning). All things considered, both Cruz and his critics appear to believe that one’s ethical judgment about the mailers were depends on how one understands the rules of the game. In short, this ethical controversy is about fair play more than personal morality or legality.

Other possibly relevant information:

These mailers have been distributed in previous campaigns with little or no fanfare. Why did this controversy make headlines? Some have argued that this particular mailer was worse than others because assigned letter grades (which usually happened to be an “F”) next to the names of individuals. Others have stated that it looks much more like an official state document than previous mailers. While it seems as though the mailers are now generally taken to be more evidence that Cruz is personally untrustworthy (which, as many have pointed out, is ironic considering he usually speaks in front of ‘TrusTED’ banner), that didn’t seem to be the case, initially.

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

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