Friday, April 21, 2017

Lebron, Cavs Break 70 Year-Old Comeback Record

Well, that was interesting.  Last night the Cavaliers certainly flipped a switch.  Whether it was the switch or not remains to be seen.  But before we get to the game itself, let's cover a couple things I was wrong about (and at least one I was right about) yesterday.

First and foremost, JR Smith wound up overcoming his hamstring injury and starting for the Cavs, which is a good thing because Iman Shumpert was pretty much awful in the thirteen minutes he did play.  Shump had a role in the Cavs second-half strangling of the Pacers, but it was a small one, and he committed 4 fouls in 13 minutes which is, well, that's something that you expect from an uncoordinated 7-footer who just came back from a foot injury or something, not the sort of thing a "wing stopper" ought to be doing.  So, sorry JR for doubting you, the team is not better when you are hurt,  I am quite chagrined to have said that.  For penance I will not wear a shirt today,

Second, I think it will be some time before I next allege that LBJ, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are "an excellent rebounding frontcourt."  Love particularly is supposed to be an elite rebounder but he just isn't doing anything to deserve that reputation right now.  He's slow to box out, seems to be mistiming his jumps, and just generally seems to lack the nastiness that is required to be an elite rebounder in the NBA.  TT is awesome, and James is elite at basically everything when matched up against a 3 (he struggles to rebound against much taller men but that's pretty much how basketball works), but Love is trash at the moment.  Not sure what's going on.

Then the one thing I got right; the Cavs finally benched Richard Jefferson (he played only three minutes and did nothing) and hopefully that is a sign of things to come.  Shump's got to get it together though or we'll probably see RJeff back in the lineup as at least he isn't committing 46 fouls per game or whatever Shump is averaging right now.

So, what happened exactly?  Well, in the first half the Cavs were worse than ever on defense.  They really looked lost and got embarrassed on several plays where the ball would swing to a guy who nobody was even pretending to guard.  Some of those were three-point looks for Lance Stephenson, who is a bad three point shooter, so maybe you can live with those, but even a bad three-point shooter is going to make a useful percentage of shots when he's completely wide open with no one guarding him at all.  Even I can make those shots from time to time and I'm one of the worst shooters who has ever laced up a basketball shoe.

So the Cavs gave up 74 points in the first half (that's bad!) and looked to be headed to a lopsided Game 3 loss and a couple nights of soul-searching before they came out in the second half and just absolutely demolished the Pacers with a strangling defense that was even better than the score would indicate (they gave up only 40 points in the second half) because the Pacers caught some lucky bounces that turned into offensive rebounds and other extra possessions.

What changed?  Unfortunately I don't yet have the complete video of the game to review so I can't really say.  One thing that happened in the fourth quarter is that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love didn't play, but they played almost the entire third quarter when the D was even better than the fourth so, who the hell knows?  The narrative about the Cavs is that they only play well when they feel desperate, and while I am always wary of such narratives (usually these things are the result of statistical variability and not these psychological factors as we are so fond of assuming) I must admit the Cavs looked like a completely different team after halftime.

Maybe Lebron was right and they were just a half away from "flipping the switch" and finally playing some defense.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the Cavs crater when Lebron sits down.  He's only sat for 11 minutes in this entire series so this number has a lot of noise in it, but in those 11 minutes the Pacers have scored at a rate of 152 points per 100 possessions, which is a number so outrageous that it's impossible to even contextualize.  It is indistinguishable from not playing defense at all.  It's All-Star Game level defense.

The only thing that's saved the Cavs is that they've actually scored at a pretty nice clip in those 11 minutes, so Jordan help them if the scrubs start missing shots.

The big looming issue for the Cavs, besides why Kevin Love doesn't seem to be able to rebound at his normal elite level, is what is going on with Kyrie Irving's shot.  As we discussed yesterday, Irving is a bad defender most of the time and while he's a decent passer for a point guard and has great finishing ability around the rim, he's really not an NBA starter-quality player without his deadly three-point shooting.  In the past two finals runs he's averaged a little over 44% shooting from deep which is a high enough number that he bends the defense and commands huge respect from opposing coaches when they are picking matchups, deciding swtiches, etc.

Right now in this series Kyrie is averaging 24% shooting from three, which is so far below a useful level that Irving, the Cavs' second scoring option, has actually recorded a negative Value Over Replacement Player in his first three games against the Pacers.  That means that replacing Kyrie with a random warm body off the trash heap would have helped the Cavs in this series.

Quite simply. the Cavs cannot win the title unless Kyrie is playing at an elite level, and right now he is playing at a sub-replacement level.  The Pacers aren't good enough to take advantage of that, but the Bucks (currently up 2-1 in their series with Toronto) certainly are, and it's possible to imagine Irving having trouble getting minutes in that series since he might be too small to guard any Buck except Dellevadova.

Three point shooting is notoriously high-variance, but 6-for-25 is a pretty severe slump.  Look for Kyrie to get it going in Game 4 or for questions to start surfacing about whether Tyronne Lue might need to get creative with his Round 2 lineups to give the Cavs the best chance to advance.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Cavs Close, Says Lebron; Flip That, Says I

So we’re two games into the playoffs, and Lebron says the Cavs are close to “flipping the switch.”  Maybe he’s right, and we should know better by now than to doubt the King. but so far the Cavs seem very much like the flawed defending champion they’ve been all year.  


Let’s get one thing out of the way first - JR Smith getting hurt is unequivocally good for the Cavs’ short-term prospects in these playoffs.  I’m a lifetime Gold Club member of TeamSwish but facts are facts:  JR has been TERRIBLE for the Cavs this season.  I mean he is KILLING them.  In 41  regular season games this year JR posted a GameScore over 10 (10 is the theoretical average for a starter) exactly nine times. The Cavs record in those games?  9-0.  Meanwhile he posted a GameScore under 2 in fourteen games, and the Cavs are 4-10 in those games.  


What does it mean to have a Game Score under 2?  It’s not good; I can tell you that.  It certainly isn’t something a starter for a championship contender should be doing more than a third of the time he steps on the floor.  


The problem is that the Cavs probably need a healthy, engaged JR Smith to have a shot against the Warriors in the finals - he’s integral to their Curry defense strategy, which is going to be all the more important this season due to the presence of Kevin Durant, which takes away the option of slotting Lebron onto Curry in most sets.  The Cavs probably don’t have anybody else who can guard Durant, so Lebron is going to have to do it most of the time.  


But for now, yes, without question, the Cavs are better with Iman Shumpert starting in place of JR Smith.  Shump is a “mistake player” who commits a lot of costly errors, but so is Smith, and Shump has actually been a slightly better shooter than JR this season.  Shump’s defense has slipped over the past few seasons but he is still regarded as a decent backcourt stopper who can slide up and guard wings (which JR really can’t do.)  


So, on to the rest of the team.  First things first - the idea at the end of the regular season was that the Cavs and Tyronne Lue had some sort of secret plan to fix the defense.  It looks like that plan is still under wraps because YE GODS the defense against the Pacers - one of the weakest, least complicated offenses in the 2017 NBA playoffs - has been atrocious.  


The 2017 Cavs allowed opponents to score about 110 points per possession.  That’s bad!  But they’ve been worse in the first two games against Indiana, surrendering over 118 points per 100 possessions.  That number extended over an entire season would be substantially worse than the worst NBA defense.  In fact the difference between the worst NBA defense what the Cavs have done in two games defensively against the Pacers (in Cleveland, let’s not forget) is about the same as the difference between the worst NBA defense (the Lakers, BTW) and the tenth-best defense (the Thunder.)


Part of this is some hot shooting from Indiana - they likely won’t shoot 43% from deep or 50% from the floor in this series, and Paul George certainly won’t continue his absurd 56% mark from beyond the arc (much of that on difficult, contested pull-up jumpers.)  But just watch the games and you’ll see an absurd number of missed assignments, miscommunications on switches, sloppy rebounding and general confusion that is not going to fix itself just because the playoffs have started.  It’s not an illusion. The Cavs are a bad defensive team, and historically speaking bad defensive teams just don’t win titles and certainly don’t successfully defend them.


But why are the Cavs so bad?  On paper they shouldn’t be.  Lebron is an excellent defender even if his effort and concentration do slip at times, and he can guard all five positions so you can slot him anywhere you need to in order to get the best matchups for your other guys.  Kevin Love is much-maligned as a defender but he really isn’t terrible - he is big enough to guard most big guys and while he’s not your first choice to switch onto a shifty wing or backcourt player he CAN succeed in those positions, and together with Tristan Thompson and Lebron he makes up what should be an excellent rebounding frontcourt.  


So what’s left?  Oh yeah - the backcourt.  You’d expect this would be where the problem lies, and you’d be right.  Kyrie Irving, who rehabilitated his reputation last season with some good defense in the Finals, and JR Smith, who has become thought of in the last couple seasons as a very  good perimeter defender despite a prior reputation as lazy and uninterested, have appeared to revert back to their old bad habits.  Basically any screen that involves one of these two defenders is an instant crisis for the Cavs defense, and the Pacers have treated Kyrie with utter contempt, swinging the ball to his man any time he’s matched up against someone with a shred of offensive ability.  He contests horribly, doesn’t recover well, has bad timing on his help, it’s just a mess.  


Behind those two guys they have Shumpert and then other atrocious perimeter defenders like Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson (who has been awful all year and hopefully will see zero significant finals minutes, but who the Cavs are relying on for big minutes at the moment.)  


Shumpert should help a little now that he’s been plucked from the end of the bench to the starting lineup, but he won’t help much and here’s why:  bad defenses are as bad as the worst mismatch on the floor, and JR, as bad as he was, usually wasn’t the worst mismatch.  That’s Kyrie, or Deron Williams when he’s on the floor, or Richard Jefferson when he’s on the floor.  Korver should probably go on this list too, but he is SO incapable of guarding people that you don’t really see him that often when there isn’t some terrible Pacer for him to hide on.  


So in the end a team full of bad defenders is going to be bad defensively.  The Cavs just don’t have enough good defenders to pull together a good defense.  They don’t have to stay THIS bad - far-worse-than-the-worst-NBA-defense-bad - but they aren’t going to suddenly become good.  This is who they are.  It’s depressing, but it’s reality.  The Cavs need to outscore people.  


Now, that said, a lineup of Kyrie, Shump, Lebron, Love and Tristan Thompson really ought to be able to stop people.  It’s not a murderers row of fearsome defenders for sure, but it isn’t bad.  Eventually it seems like this lineup is going to emerge as the only viable go-to lineup for defending opposing starters, and the rest of the rotations will adjust to reflect that.  But the quesiton still looms as to what the Cavs are going to do when Lebron is off the floor.  Right now they are getting absolutely crushed when Lebron sits (usually for Richard Jefferson who in case you’re just joining us is terrible), in fact his on/off splits are troublingly similar to what we saw from the 2009 Cavs.  That was back when Lebron was still being blamed for the Cavs woes since he “didn’t know how to win” but 2009’s playoff run for the Cavs in hindsight was Lebron attempting the absolutely Sisyphean task of building a lead over the course of 20 minutes and then seeing that lead instantly barfed up in four minutes every time he tried to sit down and have a drink of water.  


That same thing looks to be happening in these playoffs and it’s ominous.  As good as Lebron is, he can’t do it all.  The playoffs are too long and too hard and at some point he runs up against the limits of physics and biology.  The Bucks especially are well-positioned to take advantage of a tired Lebron and force the Cavs to the wall, should they get past the Raps and into a second-round matchup with Cleveland.  

The Cavs should be starting a competent defensive unit tonight against Indiana, and if Kyrie plays well it could be a downright good one.  They need to establish that unit, get everything they can out of it, and use it to build some semblance of a decent defense going forward.  They also really need to sweep this series to get Lebron some rest, because he’s not going to get much while the games are going on, that much is clear.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

State of the Association pt. 1

Since the election (and since the Browns are bad even for the Browns) I've been mostly pretending that the only thing that exists in the universe is NBA basketball.

Given that fact, and the fact that I haven't been writing much, here's a post (or, fingers crossed, a series of posts!) about the state of the NBA, with a special focus on my beloved Lebrons, erm, I mean, Cavaliers.  I thought about starting a new blog called The High Post based on my love of the Lowe Post basketball podcast with the great Zach Lowe, but The High Post is already taken as a blogger blog, and also I have enough fallow blogs.  So here goes.

True NBA fans know that the "real" NBA regular season runs from Christmas day to the middle of March, a span of about twelve weeks.  Everything before that is too early to worry much about, and everything after that (late March and early April - the playoffs start on Tax Day) is garbage time since a big portion of the league isn't really trying to win games but rather to jockey for lottery position.  

Thus it's a good time right now to take a look around the league and see where things stand at the end of what we might call the post-preseason, aka the first third of the regular season when teams are still trying to figure out what they might have.  

Part One:  The Hopeless Garbage

30.  Philadelphia 76ers

Fans of the Sixers will probably chafe at this ranking, and indeed it gives me no pleasure.  The Sixers are fun to watch, and they have a lot of interesting pieces.  But oh my goodness they are terrible.  Their offense is basically what happens when you pick up a new basketball video game for the first time and you can't really figure out how it works so you're constantly making the wrong pass, jacking up bricky fadeaways with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, and dribbling out of bounds for no reason.

The Sixers are super-young, and they will get better as the season goes along and Joel Embiid works his way into a full-time job.  As many jokes as we've made about Embiid during his two-year odyssey to return from foot problems, he appears to be as good as advertised.  He's far and away their best player and if he stays healthy he's a lock to become an All-NBA fixture.  

That said, this team is a major mess, and it's hard to imagine them winning a playoff series with anything like this configuration.  The Process continues.

29.  The Phoenix Suns

Oh, the poor Suns.  Once the Moneyball A's of the NBA, the Suns pioneered many of the modern pace-and-space concepts that are now the accepted model for constructing an offense.  Then all those guys retired and left this... thing.  I can't say a ton about them because I don't watch them.  Neither should you.  Their niche is that they are a smallish team that doesn't shoot the ball very well and doesn't play very good defense.  That's not a niche you want to be in.  

Like the Sixers, they have a lot of young players who will get better.  Unlike the Sixers, they don't have anyone who particularly seems like a transcendent talent.  No franchise has a bleaker outlook at the moment, except maybe...

28.  Brooklyn Nets

Suns fans may be howling "how can you put us lower than the Nets?"  Honestly, you're probably right, and the fact that is the best thing that can be said about your team is a sign of something very, very sad.  The Nets STINK.  Worse, they're not even young.  Their situation is utterly hopeless, stretching endlessly out into the future.  They have been terrible for years after trading away their draft picks, meaning they haven't even gotten any young talent in exchange for their awfulness.

The only reason I can't put them lower than the Suns is that the East is so bad that it's possible the Nets could somehow stumble into a playoff appearance in the next couple of years and maybe even give some 3-seed trouble.  That will not happen to the Suns. 

Remember those pace-and-space concepts we were talking about?  Yeah.  The Nets two best players are Brook Lopez, who can't run, and Trevor Booker, who can't shoot.  They're also giving major minutes to Anthony Bennett, who can't do anything.  Do not watch this team.  That is all.

27.  LA Lakers

Another storied franchise that's fallen on some hard times, these Lakers, like the Sixers, are actually quite watchable.  They have a few interesting characters (Metta World Peace!  Jose Calderon!), a quirky, talented bench (Larry Nance, Jr!) and some veteran leadership (Timofey Mozgov!  Luol Deng!)  What they don't have is anyone who can credibly guard another human who is more than five feet from the basket.  

The Lakers are the bizarro version of the Warriors - they give up points so effortlessly it almost seems like a different sport.  Opposing dribblers get into the lane with such ease that someone watching their first basketball game might come away with the impression that it is illegal for the defender to be in the offensive player's way.  Their attempts to defend pick-and-roll have the appearance of a team that wasn't told before the game that the pick-and-roll is a thing.  

Brandon Ingram should improve, and that will make a big difference because right now he is absolutely KILLING the Lakers with a brutal 35/27/71 shooting split, and D'Angelo Russell seems to be developing into a nice shoot-first, pass-second, defend-last point guard in the Kyrie Irving mold, so there's some reason for optimism here.  But it has to be a concern that the Lakers are trying to develop young guards on a team where absolutely no one plays defense.  That kind of thing tends to be contagious.  

26.  Orlando Magic

By far the most talented of the truly hopeless teams, the Orlando Magic might be the most oddly-constructed team in the NBA.  It's as if someone started collecting interesting puzzle pieces that had been cast off from other teams...  and then just kept collecting those interesting puzzle pieces until the roster had 15 guys on it.  Actually that is basically how this team was constructed, and it shows.  

The Magic's best player is Serge Ibaka (and it's not close), who is a major asset because he can shoot and he can play the 4 or the 5 for short stretches (or longer stretches if the opponent goes small a la the GSW Death Lineup.)  Also on the roster are Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, neither of whom can shoot threes (Biyombio can't shoot at all; Vucevic has a nice midrange game) or play any position except center, thus taking away some of Ibaka's value.  I cannot explain this.  I doubt Orlando can either.  

When teams let Orlando ground-and-pound with their bigs on the floor, they can beat you up and wear you down.  But it's not too difficult to put Biyombo in situations he can't handle (and that's being kind) at which point this becomes a team with no ideas beyond Elfrid Payton's sometimes-nifty drive-and-kick game.  The problem there is that other than Ibaka and Evan Fournier, the Magic just don't have the shooters to scare anyone away from just clogging the paint and forcing Payton to jack long jumpers that he has no prayer of making.  

There are enough assets here that you get the feeling the Magic could become something, but right now they're locked into this Island of Misfit Toys act and it's pretty excruciating.  

Next:  The Hopefully Mediocre


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Inside Out

Some movies are like memories - frozen moments in time that define a character and the fictional world around her.  Some are like ideas - lines of reasoning aimed at making sense of the world as it presents itself.  


Inside Out is both and neither at the same time.  It is a movie about how ideas, the tools we use to try to navigate the trials of life, affect our memories, and how our view of our memories affects our ideas about how to live.


Few children truly live the life of Riley, but most think they do until age ten or so, at least according to our cultural mythology.  At the beginning of Inside Out we meet our Riley at the age of eleven and she’s just endured a setback that threatens to overwhelm her sunny disposition with sadness.


If it stopped there it would be a standard schmaltzy children’s movie (“Don’t say the D-Word!” - managing editor Fake Bill Simmons) but Pixar went above and beyond in this one, sacrificing some narrative zip for some real thematic breadth.  The problem with Riley’s sadness isn’t how it makes her feel, it’s how it affects what she might do.  For the parents in the audience at least, the movie takes on its momentum at the instant we realize that Riley’s choices in response to her deteriorating emotional situation might really be limiting what she might be able to accomplish in her life.  We are in danger of losing her.


Amidst all this is a serious meditation on the finality of forgetting - the knowledge that when a little girl forgets a memory that bit of time is irreversibly discarded, used up.  And we can rewind the movie as many times as we want but that yawning pit of forgetting is always there, disintegrating everything into dust as black as ink.  


Yet rarely has a movie ever seemed so effortlessly positive about the state of the human condition.  Everyone in this movie suffers, and none of it is meaningless.  The terrifying trials the animated children of our childhood memories endured are the blueprints for houses we live in today, where we stuff coca-cola and twizzlers into our backpacks before taking our children to movies to learn important lessons about honesty.  


Pixar has put the entire universe into the mind of a depressed preteen girl and made the universe seem all the more limitless for it.  A best picture nomination seems assured.  Bravo.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

My Quickie Take on the Series Right Before It Starts Because I’m a Procrastinator and Didn’t Do It Before Now

Why The Heat Will Win

 I’m rooting for the Heat so this could very well be motivated reasoning.  But I think of boxing history, where we find many examples of an aging champion having a tough fight with a young upstart and losing a contest that could have gone either way.  

 In this situation the two fighters almost always rematch within the year, and the fighter who won the first fight almost always wins the second fight easier than he won the first fight.  The reason is fairly straightforward - the aging ex-champion is older, slower, and creakier, while the young champion is about the same.  

 He may even be better.  Lebron is having his best, most efficient playoffs since he tried to take on the entire NBA by himself with the 2008-09 Cavs.  The Spurs gave Lebron some trouble early in the series in 2013, but he may be ready for them this time.  His shot selection and relentlessness have been the Scylla and Charybdis that have sunk some excellent Eastern Conference defenses, while Tim Duncan’s minutes and production have been dwindling for years.

 What’s Wrong With This Reasoning

 Basketball isn’t boxing.  They let you bring other guys on the court with you to help you win, and the Spurs are better than last year with the addition of Marco Belinelli and the continued development of Kawhi Leonard.  It must have pained other Western GM’s to see Belinelli go to the Spurs - he’s the perfect bench shooter for them and he makes the series just a little bit more fascinating.  

 The Spurs’ role players are mostly young guys, and the Heat’s supporting cast is practically an AARP meeting.  Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Shane Battier may all be too old to be expected to reasonably defend any position in the Spurs aggressive offensive scheme for more than a few minutes.  

 If that happens, the Heat don’t really have a plan B.  James Jones can’t guard anyone either, so their other outside shooting option is Norris Cole, who creates super-small lineups when he’s on the floor with Chalmers, lineups the talented San Antonio frontcourt will be able to exploit.  

 Why the Heat will Win Anyway

 Lebron James is very good at basketball.  Kawhi Leonard had a decent time defending Lebron last year, but in the end James was too good shooting the jumpshot and lit him up in Game 7.  There’s no real reason to think Leonard has James’ number.  He has to prove it all over again, and it may be too much to ask a third-year player to be Lebron James’ primary defender in two straight Finals.

 The even more important difference that’s easy to forget is that Dwyane Wade was a shell of himself last season.  There’s a reason Spo created the “maintenance program” that saw Wade play just over half of the regular season.  Wade wasn’t awful in last year’s playoffs, but he wasn’t Dwyane Wade - he was a solid two-guard, nothing more, nothing less.  

 This season he’s back and he’s killing teams with his ability to get EASY midrange jumpshots (and the death of the EASY midrange jumper is greatly exaggerated) and that little hook he uses as he dribbles across the lane out of the post.  Not to mention the fact that Wade and James are still the most terrifying fast break force since Jordan and Pippen.  

 Chris Bosh, as always, will play a big role without necessarily needing to put up big numbers.  The Spurs bench is clearly better, so the Heat stars will have to shine.  But they will, and they’ll do it the same way they did it against Indiana - stealing one in San Antonio, winning both in Miami, losing game 5, and then closing it out in six.  Game Six won’t be a blowout, though, and it’ll end on a controversial call.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Macroeconomics #1

Originally I was trying to keep this blog very focused.  But it turns out a lot of days I just don't have it in me to write about personal, stay-at-home-dad type stuff, and so I don't write, and it breaks the chain.  So I'm going to write about whatever, and figure people can ignore the stuff that isn't their thing.

Which brings us to macroeconomics, and to this excellent (though long) post by William Black on the topic of news coverage of austerity budgeting.  I don't expect most people to read the whole article, though if you do bravo, but here's the key bit I want to highlight:

"It is not acceptable journalism to ignore the dominant economic view, 75 years of supporting events, and the empirical studies by austerians (the IMF) finding that fiscal changes have more powerful effects on the economy consistent with the dominant theory.  It is not acceptable journalism to ignore unemployment and inequality and the role of austerity in increasing both. "
Allow me to clarify and expand on this point briefly.  What Black is driving at is this - there is a dominant view in macroeconomics, which has held for over 75 years, that governments should not "tighten their belts" during periods of recession but should in fact spend more money and collect less money in taxes.

This view strikes non-macroeconomists as very odd and counterintuitive because people's experience with money suggests that when "times are tough" you have to cut back or "generate more revenue" as the common Newspeak phrase goes.  Also, economics is somewhat like climate science in that while there is broad agreement on many points, there exists a small rump of mostly non-scientists who make a living trying to muddy the waters and make it appear as if there is controversy even on these points of broad agreement.

So it falls to humble bloggers to say this:  despite what you hear from policymakers, think tanks, your Facebook friends, etc., there is a broad consensus in macroeconomics that austerity budgeting in a recession does not do any good and in fact makes the problem worse.  You can argue with that conclusion but if you are a reporter or commentator you should begin with the acknowledgement that this is, in fact, the overwhelming view of mainstream economics.  This is the meaning of the quip "We are all Keynesians now" that is attributed to Milton Friedman in the 1960's.

It's beyond the scope of this post to go into the academic research, which is voluminious, into the phenomenon of austerity budgeting.  What we can do is address one extremely important misconception about federal (national) budgets.

FEDERAL DEBT IS NOT OWED TO ANYONE AND DOES NOT HAVE TO BE PAID BACK.

This is extremely important.  Many lay people have a misconception that deficits mean that the government has borrowed money from someone - a bank, the Chinese, etc. - and that this money will have to be repaid by future taxpayers.  In a system like ours (Europe is a bit different which is why their system is in so much of a worse pickle than we are), the federal government does not borrow money in order to spend.  Bond issue is a completely separate consideration that has nothing to do with financing government operations.  The federal government simply spends money into existence.

The situation of a federal government is exactly like the situation if you had a system of scrip in your home for motivating your children to do chores.  You issue your child a piece of scrip each time he or she cleans up a room or takes the trash out, and the scrip is redeemable later for some privilege.

Since it's impossible to run out of scrip (because you issue it) and since you control the privileges your kids have, there is no level of debt that is "unsustainable" in the sense of not being able to "pay it back."  You didn't borrow the scrip from anyone, and since from your perspective it's merely a notional extension of your police power over your kids, there's nothing to run out of in any case.

The federal government is in the same situation.  From the USG's perspective, a dollar is simply a voucher against future (or present) tax liability.  Issuing too many such vouchers can erode their usefulness ("inflation") but there is no sense in which issuing too many such vouchers can lead to a "debt crisis" in the traditional sense, if a nation controls its own currency.

This is widely known and understood by macroeconomists, but unfortunately is known and understood by almost no one else, including policymakers.  As long as that sad state of affairs persists, we will persist in these terrible, useless policies that are causing untold suffering and waste for no reason at all.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why I Believe Dylan

As everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock already knows, Dylan Farrow recently published a letter in the New York Times describing her alleged sexual assault over 20 years ago at the hands of her adoptive father, Woody Allen.  Immediately the world divided into two main camps - those who believe Dylan and those who think that she is suffering from a memory implanted by her mother, Mia Farrow.  

I have nothing to contribute to the facts of the case as I know none of the people involved and don’t have access to any information that is not already public knowledge.  Those wanting to familiarize themselves with the facts should read what is available for themselves.  What I do have, I think, is an interesting background and perspective on the case.  

Twenty years ago I was a high school student in Richmond, VA.  The “Internet” was something that almost no one knew about, and even fewer had ever used beyond connecting to one of the “portal” sites like AOL or Prodigy that offered a severely dumbed-down, barely functional platform for accessing what would later become the most powerful research tool the world has ever known.  

I was one of those lucky few, thanks to my friend Tim who gave me the credentials to his Virginia Commonwealth University dialup account.  This account provided the same access most people take for granted today, albeit at a very slow speed (I think I was still using a 2400 baud modem, which is less than 1/20th the speed of modern dialup and about 1/5000th the speed of the connection I’m using now.)  

Most of what we now think of as “The Internet” - that is, the millions of HTML pages that form the World Wide Web - did not yet exist.  There were web pages but they were mostly sad, silly little things that were powered by potatoes (OK just one was powered by a potato: http://totl.net/Spud/).

The real action was on Usenet, a decentralized system for discussion of news from around the world.  Like just about everyone, I originally used Usenet for downloading porn, but eventually I discovered that you could read actual news on Usenet, and that there was some pretty interesting stuff.  It was the beginning of news aggregation and comment threads - you could go into a newsgroup and find posts on a given subject discussing news from almost anywhere.

One topic area that was hot at the time was something called Satanic Ritual Abuse.  This was a specific form of child abuse that was allegedly occurring in pockets of depravity all over the country.  What was interesting, though, was that evidence was mounting that the abuse wasn’t actually occurring.  It was a psychosocial phenomenon - people would become convinced that some preschool teacher or neighborhood weirdo was a crazed Satanist, and experts would be called in to interrogate children until one poor kid coughed up a story - the more implausible and insane the better.  Then the other children would be presented with the “facts” gleaned from the first child’s story until everyone agreed that the accused had committed hundreds of shocking acts of child sex abuse.

Something about this phenomenon fascinated me, and I became an activist of sorts, lecturing people endlessly about how our standards of investigation of child abuse had to change, and how people were being railroaded and destroyed by accusations that were not the least bit credible when looked at objectively and dispassionately.  

I devoured anything I could find on the subject, and after HBO aired “Indictment,” its excellent dramatization of the McMartin preschool trial, there was a lot to devour.  I talked the ear off anyone who would listen, but I found that many people were extremely hostile to the idea that these accusations were witch hunts.  It wasn’t so much that people didn’t believe what I was saying as that they were angry that I would say it.  People asked - frequently - why it was so important to me to undermine the accusations of children who said they were molested.  I was sometimes asked pointedly why I didn’t just believe the children - a difficult, albeit purely emotional, challenge to meet.

The most difficult objection that I heard to my efforts to raise awareness about SRA witch hunts was that by spreading these stories of false child abuse accusations, I would undermine the credibility of accusers generally, leading to real child abusers getting away with their crimes.  That contention struck me as not only beside the point (the truth is the truth, no matter what its implications) but preposterous - what I’d seen from these cases was that our society’s eagerness to believe absolutely ANY accusation of molestation, no matter how outrageous or obviously impossible, meant that there would certainly never be a time when an accused molester would gain an unfair benefit from public understanding of false memories and phony accusations.  

Fast-forward twenty years and imagine my surprise when, upon Dylan Farrow’s renewal of her 20 year-old claims of garden-variety sexual molestation by her adoptive father, suddenly everyone on the Internet was an expert in the science of false memory.  Endless lectures poured forth in blog comment threads, on Facebook, and yes, on Usenet.  “Don’t you realize,” these people told us, “how easy it is to implant false memories of abuse? Don’t you know these chlid molestation cases are so often witch hunts?  People get falsely accused of molesting children ALL THE TIME.”  And then, the bitter irony as all the SRA cases that everyone had once tried with all their might not to accept were witch hunts - McMartin, Kern County, Cleveland, Nottingham, and on and on - now used as evidence that Dylan Farrow must be working from a false memory implanted by Mia Farrow, her witch of a mother.  

Far be it from me to say that people aren’t entitled to their own opinion about these things.  Farther still from me to say that people shouldn’t hold a certain view because of its implications.  But if we disbelieve Dylan Farrow because of Satanic Ritual Abuse and repressed memory hoaxes, the fact is we must disbelieve almost ALL claims of sexual molestation.  That’s because Dylan Farrow’s account of her experiences with Woody Allen bear absolutely no resemblance to classic SRA or repressed memory cases.  Though I am not an expert in memory or in child sexual abuse, I have been studying these cases as an amateur for 20 years, and they have a few things in common.

The Kern County case is instructive - not least because it involves, like the Woody Allen case, a period of over two decades.  In Kern County, California in the early 1980’s, thirty-six people were convicted of participating in a child molestation ring involving over 60 children.  Most of those convicted in these cases were exonerated by the appeals process, but one who was not was John Stoll, a carpenter who wound up spending 20 years behind bars.  

Stoll was only released in 2004, when four of the six alleged victims who had testified at his trial in 1984 returned to the witness stand to confess that they had lied under pressure from adults, and that the abuse they had reported had never occurred.  

The other two accusers - one of whom is Stoll’s son - have not recanted, but they make a claim common to many accusers who maintain that their now-debunked accusations are true.  They claim that they do not remember details of the abuse.  These are the two common types of false accusations in these cases - those who later admit they were lying under pressure, and those who cannot remember the abuse itself.  

So isn’t this evidence that, indeed, Dylan Farrow may be in the same situation, of having been convinced by an adult (her mother) that her father molested her, even though it never happened?  On the contrary.  While we know that moral panic can often produce accusations of child abuse where none occurred, it is perverse to argue that because of Kern County we should not believe individual children who accuse individual adults of molestation.  There is no connection between an SRA witch hunt and the Woody Allen case.  

Of course when it comes to the human mind anything is possible.  But if Dylan Farrow is suffering from a confabulation - a false memory - it is an extremely nonstandard confabulation because it involves specific details of a traumatic event that has remained stable over a long period of time.

People do lie, and Dylan Farrow could be lying.  The Leadership Council, an independent British group that promotes the application of reliable science to human welfare, estimates that a very small percentage, perhaps 1-2%, of child sexual abuse allegations are false (http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/csa-acc.html).  

Dylan Farrow could be part of that small percentage - we unfortunately have no way of knowing, and this case will probably never be resolved.  But the popular, comforting view - that what Dylan Farrow reports having experienced could be a false memory, and that in fact this is all a big misunderstanding that can be laid at the doorstep of our favorite villain, the crazy, jilted mother - is very weak sauce.  Chances are, someone in this case, either the accuser or the accused,  is lying.  People can and will make their own judgments about which one it is.  But we should abandon the comforting illusion that this is a case of a witch hunt or a false memory.  It’s not.