Bill James, American exceptionalism, and a sense of perspective and vigilance

Sabermetric guru Bill James is one of my favorite writers and one of my fantasy dinner guests.  Recently he’s turned his attention to the history of crime in America and has a book out next Spring, Popular Crime. One of the issues that book examines is why America’s crime rate is much higher than that of most other advanced nations.  James’ recent essay in Slate: Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules: In defense of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, jaywalkers, and all the other scofflaws that make America great examines that issue in the realm of baseball greats long-past (Babe Ruth) and recent-past (Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens).

After describing Babe Ruth’s “colorful” interactions with authority, James summarizes:

Every story about Babe Ruth, every episode, reflects this very deep belief in the importance to Babe Ruth of not obeying the rules.  I am not saying that we should not admire Babe Ruth, that we should not respect him, that we should not honor him. What I am trying to get people to face is the cast of mind that made Babe Ruth what he was. It was not very different from the cast of mind that made Barry Bonds who he was, or made Roger Clemens or Ted Williams who they were. I myself am a stubborn, sometimes arrogant person who refuses to obey some of the rules that everybody else follows. I pay no attention to the rules of grammar. I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25. It has to do with following the rules that make sense to me and ignoring the ones that don’t. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am. I started the Baseball Abstract, self-publishing it when self-publishing was cumbersome and impractical, because it was my book and nobody was going to tell me how to write it or tell me what people were interested in….

It is a very American thing, that we don’t believe too much in obeying the rules. We are not a nation of Hall Monitors; we are a nation that tortures Hall Monitors. We are people who push the rules.

That mindset James describes–Ruth’s, Bonds’, his own–also describes me, most of my closest friends, and many of the professionals I admire.  It’s a mindset that James believes is the cause of our high violent crime rate and the engine of America’s greatness:

[O]ne of the issues I looked at is why America’s crime rate is much higher than that of most other advanced nations. This attitude that we have toward following the rules is certainly very relevant to that. Violent crimes are terrible, terrible things, devastating to people’s lives, and we do have more crime in America because we are not people who take all of the rules very seriously. This latitude that we give one another creates a space in which a culture of crime lives and breeds. It is dishonest not to admit that this is true.

At the same time, America is an immensely creative country, very inventive, extraordinarily dynamic, meaning that things change in America at a staggering pace. Not only do Americans derive fantastic benefits from this, but the entire world derives great benefits from it, from the things that Americans invent and create. And this … nature that we have (which is not truly nature or truly natural) … of giving one another space to ignore the rules and do whatever we think is right is central to our creativity, our inventiveness, and to the power of American society to stagger, adjust, and rush forward.

So am I saying, then, that in order to get the dynamism and power of American life, we have to put up with crime and with the other dangers that crop up in a society in which people don’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to the rules? …No, not at all; that’s a sloppy, defeatist answer. There are two lousy answers here:

1) That we need to become a nation like Germany in which people respect and obey the rules, whether they make sense or not.

2) That we have to tolerate the violence and the being-sprayed-with-pesticides and the being-hit-by-trains that come from living in a society in which people don’t pay a lot of attention to rules that they don’t like.

No. 1 is a lousy answer because the inevitable consequence is that America ceases to be the dynamic, crazy, and creative country that gives the world an endless flow of new inventions. No. 1 is a lousy answer because the inevitable consequence of No. 1 is that Babe Ruth goes to jail. In his time, nobody wanted to send Babe Ruth to jail, but now we do want to send Barry Bonds to jail, and we want to send Roger Clemens to jail, and we (for reasons that I don’t understand) find it necessary to piss on Mark McGwire’s shoes in order to defend the honor of Roger Maris. I am not happy about this. There is no real difference between sending Babe Ruth to jail and sending Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens to jail. The only relevant difference is the difference between America in 2010 and America in 1940.

You think Babe Ruth didn’t violate the law? Babe Ruth violated the law more often than television reruns old episodes of Cops or Andy Griffith. You ever hear of Prohibition?

But No. 2 is a lousy answer, too, because that means that we go on getting people murdered and hit by trains and sprayed with pesticides and bilked out of their savings by Wall Street geek-geniuses who can invent new financial instruments much faster than the regulators can figure out how dangerous they are.

Finally, James comes to a third, not-lousy, answer to the question of how to keep America dynamic but less violent:

The answer is not No. 1 or No. 2; it is tolerance and vigilance, and it is a sense of perspective. The people who sent Martha Stewart to jail were the people who were supposed to be watching Wall Street. They went after Martha Stewart because she was an easy target. Also, they didn’t understand financial derivatives. Nobody did; as it turned out, the people who were trading in them didn’t understand them, either. That’s why Lehman Bros. went bankrupt; they were trading in something they didn’t understand. So now it is Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in the crosshairs of the prosecutors, and the question I would urge you to think about is not only “Are these people guilty?” It is also, “Is this prosecution necessary and appropriate?”

Who is it that these people are not watching? We know now, in retrospect, who the people who sent Martha to jail should have been watching. In 10 years, we will know who is robbing the candy store while the feds are chasing Roger. It is not our job to know that now; it is their job, and frankly they should go do it. Is it really necessary to send Babe Ruth to jail, to teach him a lesson about refusing to go to school and making off-color remarks at nice old ladies’ dinner parties and drinking during Prohibition? Or can we let him be Babe Ruth, arrogant and charming and irresponsible?

Like many of my countrymen, including James, I worry that the era of American greatness may be coming to an end.  Often, what I observe is a country in which the mass of people are consumed by the trivial (Snooki, a pastor threatening to burn the Koran; Nikki Haley’s sex life), unable to analyze or debate anything regarding the challenges that our country faces, and resorting to simple platitudes to answer complex issues.  I’ve heard more about Nikki Haley’s sex life than I have about her plans to improve our schools.  I’ve read no analysis regarding how her plan to fix our economy–eliminate corporate income taxes–has actually worked for the states without corporate income taxes.  Evidently whether she’s committed adultery is a bigger issue for the voters than whether her agenda is coherent.  In seven weeks she’ll likely be elected our next governor.

I have liberal friends who remain convinced that the inability of middle-aged, upper-middle class Americans to have equity in their homes because they spent the past twenty years trading up and cashing out is due to evil marketers who somehow forced these folks to “keep up with the Joneses.” I have conservative friends who believe the answers to many of America’s ills–including our budget deficit–is more tax cuts.  Too frequently our policy debates degenerate into ad hominem attacks. We cannot have a rational discussion about the role of America’s military in the Islamic world or whether criminalizing soft drugs makes this country safer without resorting to name calling.  There’s not a single important issue facing our country today in which the public debate rises above puerile simplicity.

As James notes we live in a country that prosecuted Martha Stewart while ignoring real estate derivatives.  This abandonment of perspective–in government; in law; in media–has not changed and shows no sign of changing.  Our collective loss of tolerance, vigilance, and a sense of perspective is lucrative business for me and my fellow attorneys but bad business for America.

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