Double Imcompetence
by Ken Arneson
2020-08-14 23:30


There’s an old political joke that goes: Republicans believe that governments lack competence, and so when they hold government power, they set out to prove their theory.

Which…I don’t know. Like any joke, it is both appropriate and inappropriate at the same time. It just seems to me like imcompetence is spreading like a virus throughout our society. And like a virus which doesn’t care if it infects a Democrat or a Republican, imcompetence doesn’t care if it infects the government or the private sector, it just keeps growing no matter what.

Take, for example, the last two A’s games I have tried to watch. On Wednesday, when I tried to turn on the A’s-Angels game on my TV, I was greeted with this message, indicating that the game was blacked out in my area:

This content is subject to blackout restrictions in your area.

This should not have been the case. What seems to have happened was this: the game was being broadcast locally on the NBC Sports California channel, and also nationally on the MLB Network channel. If you’re in the local area, the MLB Network content was supposed to be blacked out, in order to force you to watch on NBC Sports California. However, my service provider, Sling, blocked out NBC Sports California, instead.

So I got online, and I complained: to Sling, to the A’s, and to A’s President Dave Kaval. Kaval acknowledged the mistake, and said he’d try to fix it. Sling messaged me, acknowledged the mistake, and said they’d try to fix it.

I appreciate the acknowledgements. But it did not get fixed.

This is not the first time this has happened, so I remembered a workaround from the last time: I could log into the NBC Sports app using my Sling credentials, and watch the game on my computer instead. Which was OK for a workaround, but that’s exactly what it was: a workaround.

There was nothing governmental about this imcompetence. This was 100% the fault of private sector, which, in the aim of maximizing profits, created byzantine, complicated rules about who can see what content and where and on which technologies, rules which are too hard to follow on a consistent basis without making mistakes.

For the following game (A’s vs Giants), I was not blacked out from watching it. Instead, I was browned out.

It was a hot day in Northern California, which apparently taxed the state electrical grid enough that the state electrical regulators decided they needed to start implementing rolling blackouts. Which they did, at exactly 7:30pm, 45 minutes into the game.

So for the second game in a row, my consumption of A’s baseball was interrupted. My power was out, so my TV wouldn’t work, nor would my internet connection. I tried to use cellular data, but the signal was very weak. No way I could stream anything. I could get some Twitter updates, that was about it for data options. Which left radio as my only possible workaround. Until a couple weeks ago, even that might not have worked, because the A’s had gone streaming-only. But they had recently picked up a Bay Area terrestrial radio station, AM 960, to broadcast their games. However, the only transistor radio I own only gets FM radio now; the AM on it has broken for some reason. So I had exactly one option: my car radio.

So I went outside to the car in my driveway, opened the windows, turned up the volume, and sat out on my front porch to listen to the game in the warm evening.

Which actually turned out to be a quite pleasant experience. Some neighbors who also had lost their power decided it was good time to take a walk. I chatted with them as they walked by on the sidewalk. Again, it was not what I had planned, but the workaround was tolerable.

But what has happened? Brownouts used to be a thing that only happened in developing countries. But ever since our electrical grid was deregulated in 1990s, brownouts have become a regular thing in California. How did we become so imcompetent? Democrats will argue that deregulating the grid and privatizing PG&E was all a big mistake, while Republicans will argue that it was only a partial deregulation, and they should have gone all the way.

This argument repeats itself in other areas besides electricity: healthcare, education, the prison system, etc. And now the Trump administration is now trying to “fix” the post office, and in doing so, are rendering imcompetent both the post office itself, and all the systems that depend on it: small businesses, medicinal delivery, and elections. You can choose sides picking out the blame, but whether socialized or privatized, it seems to me imcompetence happens no matter what you do. The DMV is socialized, but nobody looks at it as a bastion of competence. Cable TV is privatized, but trying to get any service from them is as frustrating as the DMV.

There’s something else going on here that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are modeling correctly. I think it has to do a phenomenon I explained in an essay I wrote in 2016 called The Data/Human Goal Gap.

To summarize: a good way to improve any human endeavor is to measure your success. Try something, measure what you did, keep the stuff that the measurement says works, throw out the stuff that the measurement says doesn’t work, and then rinse, lather, and repeat.

Doing this puts you on a trajectory of change, which almost always brings you closer to the success you are trying to achieve, at least at first. And because this trajectory worked in the past, you come to believe in those measurements you took, that these measurements are the key to success.

The problem comes when the thing you are measuring is not exactly the actual goal you are trying to achieve. When there is a gap between your goal and your measurement, the measurement can only take you so close to your target. Once you reach that closest distance to your target, if you keep following that same trajectory, you will start to move further away from your target instead of closer to it.

Politicians measure themselves with polls, and with election victories. But poll numbers and election victories are not the end goal of politics. The end goal of politics is the welfare of the people. Measuring yourself with election victories, when you come from a dictatorship, can start to yield improvements in welfare over time. But at some point, the things that bring you election victories can cease to be the same as the things that improve the welfare of the people. When that happens, the only way to improve the welfare of the people is to be willing to do things that will lose you an election.

But because the name of the game is winning elections, and politicians believe in that particular game, and we have reached a point where public welfare and election numbers have diverged, politicians can’t bring themselves to do the things that will increase our welfare, because they can’t let themselves go from the measurements they cling to. And the people start to regard politicians as being ever more imcompetent at their jobs.

Similarly, a profit motive might help you build an electrical grid effectively at first. But after you reach the minimal possible distance between your target (profit) and your goal (a reliable electrical grid), chasing further problems takes you further from your goal, not closer, as we saw with the California electricity crisis of the early 2000s. Profit motive works great until you reach that critical point where it becomes counterproductive. That’s when you need to shift gears, change directions, and measure yourself by something different that will get you back to moving towards your goals.

If I’m right, if this is what’s going on, the left and right dichotomy in our politics isn’t helpful. The profit motive isn’t always bad, as diehard socialists say, or always good, as diehard capitalists say. It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, and it requires wisdom and intellectual flexibility our politicians and political parties lack in order to tell the difference.

So: two straight days of infrastructural imcompetence while trying to watch the A’s. Doubly frustrating: two straight games of imcompetence on the field, too. The A’s were getting their butts kicked by the Giants while I was listening to the radio, utterly unable to hit Giants starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (who is incidentally one of my favorite non-A’s pitchers). But I was kind of enjoying the evening in the warm but pleasant air of a summer evening, so I didn’t hurry back to my TV when the power went back on about an hour later. I just kept listening to the game on the radio.

When Cueto left the game, the A’s started to chip away at the Giants lead off Cueto’s less competent successors. The A’s entered the ninth inning trailing 7-2.

The A’s got a home run from Matt Olson to lead off the ninth to cut the lead to four runs. After by a mental error by Giants first baseman Wilmer Flores, whose indecision turned a potential double play into no outs, the A’s loaded the bases for Stephen Piscotty.

As A’s radio announcer Ken Korach called Piscotty’s grand slam which tied the game at 7-7, I leaped out of the chair I was sitting in and rushed back to my TV to see it instead of just hear it. I ended up watching the rest of the game on TV, no more blackouts, no more brownouts, and the A’s ended up winning the game in 10 innings, 8-7.

It was a remarkable comeback. A’s manager Bob Melvin said the victory had a “high degree of difficulty”. But there may be a lesson to learn there. Everything may seem hopeless and riddled with imcompetence one minute, but if you don’t give up, if you are willing to change your perspective and adjust your approach, you can sometimes discover a new path to success that you didn’t even know was there.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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