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Pitchers

By now you know the story: before last season, Oakland traded away three of its best pitchers (and its last three All-Stars): Trevor Cahill, to the Diamondbacks; Gio Gonzalez, to the Nationals; and Andrew Bailey, to the Red Sox. At the time, it seemed like the confirmation of the trope we in Oakland have come to know so well in the last decade: raise great pitchers and auction them off before they become too expensive. It looked like this was the biggest fire sale yet.

Nonetheless,

Oakland’s pitching–traditionally a strength–came through as always. Despite trotting out an extremely untested staff, the A’s were a pitching-positive team last year. Perhaps Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone’s success could have been foreseen–but what about Travis Blackley, Dan Straily, Bartolo Colon, and AJ Griffin? The A’s got unpredictably good efforts out of all of them, and trotted out a hard-to-believe 7 starters who each recorded at least one win of cumulative fWAR value. By year’s end, injuries had left the club basically starting all rookies–and it didn’t seem so terrible, especially given the late-season 7-8-9 dominance of the Doolittle-Cook-Balfour trio. If you watched the ALDS it was easy to see how we could have won.

The real question is how likely the young staff is to repeat last year’s success. Brandon McCarthy is gone, which is my main quibble with this front office this offseason; with him gone, Brett Anderson is the new big man on campus (Colon’s heft aside). Tyson Ross is also gone; while he was bad as a starter, his real problems always came in the 3+ time through the lineup, so he could have become a valuable stretch reliever.

Credit the ballpark, to an extent: the A’s held their opponents to nearly a run fewer at home, posting a 3.08 ERA at home to a 3.95 average away. You can also credit the team’s defense, which went from being a famous afterthought in the Moneyball-proper era to a new advantage around the turn of the century. The A’s should be even better in the field this year: they have four legit center fielders, and as I’ve mentioned before I think Yo’s flyball-route woes will evaporate as he gets more major league coaching. Up the middle they may miss Pennington’s glove; it really depends on how Nakajima shakes out, which is a total wild card.

Without any further ado,

I think it’s a four-seamer.

Starters:

1. Brett Anderson — That slider bites. I have no qualms about Anderson when he is out there. The only question seems to be how often he will be out there. He came back from Tommy John surgery last year having recovered his old velocity, but hasn’t approached the 175 IP he threw as a rookie in 2009. I hope he can top that this year — if so, he’ll be the ace we need. (5-3)

2. Bartolo Colon — I don’t think many of us thought we’d see Colon but not McCarthy back this season. Colon’s 2012 was cut short by a suspension for PEDs, but he went 4-2 in six starts even after he knew he would probably be suspended. Assuming he’s not going to be on them now, I don’t know if he can repeat last year’s success. PEDs aside, his control last year was absolutely insane–a ridiculously low 1.3 BB/9. This was far below his career average of 2.91, but maybe (?) is due to a strategic change. Last year, despite the velocity decrease that comes with age, Colon threw an absurdly high percentage of fastballs–89%! I expect him to be solid (ha, ha) when he’s out there, though I don’t know how much that will be. (3-1)

3. Jarrod Parker — Parker showed gravitas in stepping up to become the A’s effective #1 by the NLDS, given the injuries/suspensions that took down McCarthy, Anderson, and Colon. Don’t get too excited by the Greg Maddux comparison ZiPS comes up with–okay, it’s pretty awesome, but still. Dude’s a sophomore. The concern with Parker & Milone alike will be whether their arms can withstand the rigors of pitching 150+ innings, given their heavy workload as rookies. I’m looking for a sub-4 ERA, and will be happy if it’s sub-3.5. What a nasty changeup. (4-2)

4. Tom Milone — Am I the only one who sees Jamie Moyer out there? (Given the Maddux comp above, maybe even Tom Glavine?) Okay, maybe the soft-tossing lefty comparison is a little lazy. If he’s as good as Moyer, though, we’re set. In any case, as a fly-ball pitcher he’ll always have an advantage at o.co: he was basically an ace at home last year (.271 wOBA allowed) and replacement-level away (.367 wOBA allowed). He has some minor-league history of higher strikeout rates; if he can improve in that area, his weaknesses away might be mitigated. I’m quite happy with him as a 3rd or 4th starter, though. (3-2)

5. Dan Straily/AJ Griffin — While the first four spots in the rotation are relatively set, it’s much less clear who will take the ball on the fifth day. Both Straily and Griffin were surprising successes last year, though in different settings. Griffin took the ball for the A’s on the way to a sterling 7-1 record. He relies on control. Straily became the talk of the minors when he shot from non-prospect status to lead the minors in strikeouts (he is now considered one of the A’s top prospects). While Griffin had a better big-league season last year, most expect Straily to come out with the fifth spot. In the long run both are major league starters. (2)

 

Depth: Andrew Werner, Travis Blackley

Bullpen:

Okay, I don’t want to be here all day. The bullpen will be fine. Jordan Norberto might get suspended as he’s recently been linked to PEDs, but we were fine without him anyway. We won’t have to deal with Brian Fuentes, thank the stars. The last couple innings seem set, though I’m not sure how long Balfour can keep it turned up to 11 without bursting a blood vessel. Sean Doolittle may have been the strangest story in baseball all last year, but I look forward to a lot of 1-2-3 innings from him. Blevins can handle lefties. Ryan Cook probably has the most potential out of all of them. For long relief… who wants to hear about long relief, anyway?

Expectations

The A’s broke completely beyond expectations last year to win the AL West. To do so, they had to get past the Rangers, who had become something of a juggernaut in the past couple yars, as well as the Angels, who have seemingly never had a down year since 2001. Well, the Rangers have three of the top prospects in baseball (Leonys Martin, Jurickson Profar, and Mike Olt), and the Angels added a couple of guys named Josh Hamilton and Jason Vargas (who seemed to own the A’s last year). Competition is likely to remain fierce on the left coast. On the plus side, the Angels’ pitching seems like it might have gotten even shakier than it was, and the Rangers lost an MVP in Hamilton. On the other side… the Rangers offense is still scary, Yu Darvish might get better, and the Angels are trotting out Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.

So the picture in the West is pretty cloudy. What about around the rest of the AL?

The AL Central seems to be the Tigers’ for the taking. The Indians should be much improved, and the White Sox might crack .500, but there’s no one predicting the result won’t be mostly the same as last year.

So what about the AL East? The division seems to get more crowded every year, and this may be the year when every club can lay claim to some shred of real hope for the crown.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but the Yankee dynasty may be coming to an end. While Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are still around, the house seems to be crumbling around them. A-Rod may or may not ever be effective, much less play, again. Mark Teixeira is rapidly declining in productivity. I still expect them to contend, but the hope now is for 90 wins, not 100 as the standard has seemed to be for the last fifteen years. (Oh, crap. Just looked at their roster. This is frightening. I’m a sucker for redemption stories, so seeing that they signed Travis Hafner has me afear’d he’ll go back to being the Pronk of old.)

The Blue Jays were the big movers of the offseason. Their top four batters (Reyes, Me. Cabrera, Bautista, Encarnación) rival the Angels’ for most fearsome in the league, and they also added last year’s NL Cy Young (RA Dickey), the guy people keep picking to win the NL Cy Young (Josh Johnson), and veteran Mark Buehrle. However, their bullpen still isn’t great and the other five batters nowhere near as impressive.

The Orioles had a dismal offseason, and don’t seem likely to repeat last year’s miracle, but can’t be completely ignored.

The Rays should be their usual pesky selves; they lost Upton, but added Wil Myers, and a full season of Evan Longoria will be nice.

I wish I could say the Red Sox won’t compete, but look at that lineup! They have power all the way through. Stephen Drew, who hit 2nd for the A’s for a time, is projected to bat last!

My conclusion is that the AL is going to be a murderfest this year. By my count there are seven teams (Jays, Yanks, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, A’s, Angels) that are very good. I’m leaving out the Red Sox on the basis of their pitching. Of these, the A’s probably have close to the lowest ceiling. However, that was never what this offseason was about. Following the front office’s strategy this winter was to be given notice of the value of stabilizing the team and consolidating the gains made last summer. Compare this with the Yankees, who are relying on a number of aging stars: Andy Pettite could win fifteen games or none, Ichiro could hit .300 or .250. Oakland has major-league depth around the diamond, and if they make the playoffs, I expect this to be a major reason why. I listed seven “very good” teams. Only four/five of these seven will make the playoffs. If I had to guess, injuries will play a significant part in downing the two teams that will be on the outside looking in come Wild Card Day. Luckily, these A’s are built to withstand injuries.

For fun, I’ve summed the wins I think we’ll see from each of the A’s significant players and added that to the replacement level for wins (47 last year), as follows:

C = 4 (Jaso 3, Norris 1)

1B = 4 (Moss 3, Barton 1)

2B = 2 (Lowrie 1, Sizemore 1)

SS = 2 (Nakajima 2)

3B = 3 (Donaldson 3)

RF = 4 (Reddick 4)

CF = 4 (Crisp 2, Young 2)

LF = 4 (Céspedes 4)

DH = 1 (Smith 1–Crisp & others may also get time at DH)

SP = 15 (Anderson 4.5, Parker 3.5, Milone 2.5, Colon/Straily/Griffin 4.5)

Relief = 4.5 (Balfour, Cook, Doolittle 1 each, Blevins etc .5)

Total = 47.5

Total + Replacement Level = 47.5 + 47 = 94.5

Whoa!

I do not expect Oakland to win 95 or even 94 games this year. However, they will be in the thick of the Wild Card race, maybe give someone a scare for the pennant, and I will not be surprised if they do win 94 or 95 games. That’s the best I can do.

 

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1530988-oakland-athletics-starting-rotation-predictions-for-2013

http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/index.php/athletics-rotation-depth-chart-discussions/

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In the laudably misguided tradition of bloggers everywhere, I’m going to improperly assume that everyone else spends as much time thinking about my favorite sports team as I do. What follows are my somewhat reasoned-out thoughts on the Oakland A’s as constructed for the 2013 season, peppered with insights from elsewhere. A little rosterbation never hurt anyone!

Batters

In 2001, Oakland seemed to have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ledger: Jason Giambi had just won the 2000 MVP, Miguel Tejada would win one in 2002, and Eric Chávez looked like he’d be hitting 30 homers a year for the next decade. What was not to be! The MVPs signed elsewhere, and Chavy got hurt and was never the same. For the rest of the decade and into the next, the A’s had a perennially antagonistic relationship with offense. Jack Cust seemed like a bona fide slugger in that climate.

Still can’t believe it.

All of which is to say that last year’s club was a…pleasant surprise. While the team didn’t remind anyone of the 1920s Yankees, the club did finish 14th in runs scored… which is in the top half of all MLB clubs! This resurgence was fueled by a number of individual breakthroughs that went beyond random variance. Team batting average remained frighteningly low, but this was offset by a smart year on the basepaths and unexpected pop around the diamond. Yoenis Céspedes acclimated to the big leagues faster than anyone thought he would. Josh Reddick busted out for thirty homers. Perhaps most of all, Brandon Moss (160 wRC+) and Chris Carter (137 wRC+) teamed up for a fearsome platoon at first base that no one could have foreseen. Moss wasn’t even a first baseman until last year, and Carter was only one in a mix of quad-A players at first base that included Brandon Allen, Daric Barton, and Kila Ki’ahue.

These breakouts were tempered by downright bad seasons from Kurt Suzuki (traded mid-season), Cliff Pennington (traded in the offseason), and Jemile Weeks (in this year’s 2B mix). However, smart roster moves and solid backups offset these losses in production. General manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin got power, defense, and leadership from indefatigable veteran Brandon Inge, and when Inge went down, Josh Donaldson emerged. Beane/Melvin minimized the gaping black hole at second base by trading for Stephen Drew and moving Cliff Pennington to second, where he regressed to the mean somewhat on offense and was a plus defender at least.

The strategy of the offseason seemed designed to shield these upstart A’s from regression. Beane looked to consolidate the gains the team had made by adding depth, especially in the infield. Essentially, he looked to trade the volatile success of last year for something a little more certain. He bought low on centerfielder Chris Young, who was available because of Arizona’s glut of outfielders; Young mashes lefties and will throw better from centerfield than noodle-armed Coco Crisp. At catcher, he brought in John Jaso, who will mercifully take starts away from Derek Norris. Norris may have been overmatched at the plate last season, and Jaso will gladly take his at-bats against righties. Jaso had 2.7 fWAR in only 360 PAs last year, mostly against righties, so he is a significant addition. The infield up the middle could be all new faces: Hiroyuki Nakajima was brought in from Japan to play shortstop, and glass-bodied former prospect Jed Lowrie arrived in a trade that sent fan favorite Chris Carter to Houston. Nakajima will have the shortstop job as long as concerns about his defense don’t prove too serious. Lowrie, however, is harder to figure out. He’s never topped 100 games, due to a worrisome history of injuries. He played mostly short last year, but has seen time at every position in the infield and figures as a plus fielder all over the diamond. He has pop, too–14 homers in an injury-shortened season, good for third among all shortstops. Where he’ll play seems to mostly be a matter of where others fail.

With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at some projected lineups:

v. RHP v. LHP
Lineup Lineup
CF Crisp DH Crisp
C Jaso 1B Lowrie/Barton
LF Cespedes CF Young
1B Moss LF Cespedes
DH Smith RF Reddick
RF Reddick 3B Donaldson
3B Donaldson SS Nakajima
2B Lowrie 2B Greeksmoregard*
SS Nakajima C Norris

*Greeksmoregard = whoever wins job out of Grant Green, Scott Sizemore, Jemile Weeks, Eric Sogard.

The A’s have three left-handed batters who should platoon well: Moss, Smith, and Jaso should always start against righties. Against lefties, the team gets a little better defensively: Young’s an upgrade in center, Barton is a beast in the corner, and Norris at least has the potential to be better than Jaso, who is a weak defender. However, it might be weaker offensively; it’s hard to tell.

What follows is a depth chart with projected WAR values, based on FanGraphs’ reports of Oliver, Steamer, Bill James, and Fan projections, combined with my own intuition. I give a range for each player: the high end represents them playing to the level of their best season, and the low end represents them playing to their lowest. Injuries are not factored in, and I am assuming exclusivity (i.e., I can’t say Barton is going to be a five-win player because even if he regains form, he’ll be splitting PAs with Moss).

C:

Looks like he’ll fit right in.

John Jaso (1 – 3.5): Jaso came close to the OBP holy grail of .400 last year, and should bat near the top of the order for the A’s this year. Twenty-nine and at his peak, Jaso raked against righties–a .927 OPS–and fared nearly as poorly against lefties, hitting a measly .119. Though he figures as a strict platoon, Jaso should be a strong contributor on offense for the A’s this year. Except for the conventional prejudice that a leadoff hitter should hit first, he’d be good in that spot. More here.

Derek Norris (0 – 1): I have Norris figured as a replacement-level player, because that’s what he looked like to me at the end of last year, and I don’t want to trust some random calculations over my own eyes. HOWEVER–for whatever reason, the Oliver and Fan projections have faith in his development, calling for 3.1 and 2.5 WAR, respectively. I’m not buying it, but I’d take it if given.

1B:

Brandon Moss (1 – 3.5): Moss’ profile screams regression, though I wish it weren’t so. A 160 wRC+ makes sense next to a name like Edwin Encarnacion, whose power has always been apparent, but last year’s showing from Moss was unexpected. I hope it’s real, though the number of swing-and-misses I saw from him last year belies that expectation. We’ll see whether he starts against lefties; he hasn’t shown too much difficulty against them, and could surpass the upper bounds of my projection if he does keep those starts. I don’t think he will, though.

Daric Barton (0 – 2): I may be the only one with irrational confidence in Barton. Following his defense-fueled 5-win season in 2010, he’s fallen apart and continually lost the job. His defense is real, and in his favor is a bizarre reverse-platoon split that may see him see action against southpaws. He has no power–not really even the doubles kind–but as long as he can get on base and keep his line-drive rate up, he’s worth something. Despite hitting as poorly as ever last year, he kept walking and defending, and lo and behold!–value: .5 WAR in 136 PAs, better than 2 WAR for 600 PAs. If you can have that kind of value while hitting .200, you’re making up for it somewhere. Consider me intrigued.

2B:

Jed Lowrie (1.5 – 3.5): Lowrie can contribute all over the field, and will really end up wherever he is needed. He should be fine at the plate as long as he keeps walking like he did last year–look at his 2011 season for what happens when he doesn’t.

Scott Sizemore (1 – 3): Oliver actually loves him, projecting 2.6 WAR. We’ll see what a year off has done.

Depth–Jemile Weeks, Grant Green, Eric Sogard, Adam Rosales

SS:

Hiroyuki Nakajima (0 – 3): We really don’t know what we’re getting in him, but he’s supposed to be able to hit.

Jed Lowrie

Depth–Brandon Hicks, Adam Rosales, Eric Sogard, Grant Green

3B:

Josh Donaldson (1.5 – 3.5): Crazy to look for 3-4 WAR? Not really–he went for 1.8 in 75 games last year, and those include his horrific start. Defense should be there–can he keep hitting like he did at the end of the year? Even if he can’t, his double in ALDSG4 lives on forever.

Jed Lowrie

Depth–Scott Sizemore

OF:

Good doing business with you, Sr. Céspedes.

Yoenis Céspedes (3-6): Yo put up 3 WAR in his first season in America, and I can’t see him putting up less than that given the in-season development he showed. I think concerns about his defense should disappear this year as he adapts to left field, and he’s got quite an arm even if it’s not on Reddick’s level. His ISO may drop, but I see him putting up a continually high BABIP–have you seen how hard the guy swings? Hopefully he’ll play all season and hit that upper bound.

Josh Reddick (2-5): There’s a wild range of possibilities for this guy. He could be an All-Star or far from it. Many of Reddick’s issues seem to be in his head. He should be able to ride his defense and baserunning to at least 3 wins, but his contribution to the team plateaued in a disturbing way last year as his Ks ticked up toward the end of the year. His swing is a bit long–perhaps due to an effort to loft fly balls for homers–and he’s an oddly poor fastball hitter. His potential is great, but he really gets into ruts; he’s got a lot of variability. If he could become a true middle of the order hitter, with a .270/.350 line, that would quite a coup, but for now he’s best in the 6 spot with his abysmal OBP. For all this criticism, it’s important to remember that last year was Josh’s first in the big leagues, so even if he comes down to earth this year we’ll hopefully see some long-term improvement.

Coco Crisp (2-3): Bob Melvin loves Coco and his speed, so I expect him to get play even when Young starts in center. Coco’s years with the A’s have been remarkably consistent, but he is aging with reliance on speed, so giving him some time off could be good.

Chris Young (2-4): Young is an extreme pull hitter who should always face lefties. His power numbers should come down as a result of the move to the cavernous, terribly-named o.co Coliseum, but hopefully his speed will come back after the shoulder injury that kept him hobbled last year. He has put up multiple 4-win seasons before, but since he’ll probably play less, that might be his upper bound now.

Seth Smith (1-2): Smith will probably mostly DH, perhaps spelling Céspedes at times. As part of Oakland’s platoon advantage, he’ll be our professional hitter against righties. He’s been the model of consistency, so there shouldn’t be any surprises here.

Depth: Smith, Michael Taylor, Michael Choice, Grant Green (last three are prospects close to big leagues; Taylor could start the year with the club, though I’m no expert on such things)

Questions:

1. How will Nakajima adapt to the big leagues? The A’s new shortstop will almost certainly not be an elite hitter as he was in Japan. If he can be an above-average hitter, though, the A’s will gain some cushion on offense.

2. Fitting the puzzle pieces together in the infield. Scott Sizemore has played second and third, Josh Donaldson has played third and catcher, Eric Sogard can play anywhere up the middle, and Jed Lowrie can play anywhere, period. It’s possible that the pieces will fall into place naturally as performance and injury thins the competition, but right now the A’s have a glut of infielders, with little clarity on how things will shake out. Lowrie, Donaldson, and Sizemore all have similar profiles, but as the A’s traded a decent amount for Lowrie, he figures to be a starter–but where?

3. Options. We saw last year how adept Bob Melvin proved to be in milking platoon advantages for all they’re worth. The A’s have definitely given themselves flexibility with this winter’s flurry of moves. Some are projecting that Chris Young and Brandon Moss will be full-time starters, on the basis of Young’s excellent defense and Moss’ lack of an apparent challenger. To be honest, I have no idea how all this will shake out. As I’ve noted, Young mashes lefties, but he’s no slouch against righties. Crisp still has a better OPS and better speed, though, so I think we’ll see him bat mostly from the left side this year as he gets the starts against righties. On the Moss front, he hit for the same average against both righties and lefties last year, but his power disappears against southpaws.

In general, I have to say I have very little idea how our lineup is going to shake out. There are way too many permutations to try to nail it down now: we just have to wait and see who steps up.

4. Youth and improvement. The A’s had enormous success last year from players in their first year as major-league starters: Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Céspedes, and Josh Donaldson were all such players. Whether these players continue to improve will be a huge question going into the season. Norris can’t really get worse, and while I won’t be surprised to see Reddick and Moss, I really think Donaldson and Céspedes will build on last year’s campaigns. (I’m secretly really optimistic about all of them, but won’t let myself get carried away!)

Other Previews:

Alex Hall at Athletics Nation: http://www.athleticsnation.com/2013/1/18/3892226/constructing-oakland-as-lineup-by-the-book

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS Projections: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/2013-zips-projections-oakland-athletics/

ESPN’s David Schoenfield: http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/32768/offseason-report-card-as

Oakland’s Top Ten Prospects: http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/prospects/rankings/organization-top-10-prospects/2013/2614395.html

SB Nation: http://mlb.sbnation.com/2013/2/6/3956166/oakland-athletics-trades-jed-lowrie-chris-young-john-jaso

MLBlogs: http://formerlyfausto.mlblogs.com/2013/02/08/oakland-athletics-2013-team-preview-billy-beane-is-sexy-and-he-knows-it/

Oakland’s Infield at Bleacher Report: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1522773-oakland-athletics-starting-infield-predictions-for-2013/page/1

Rotochamp: http://rotochamp.com/baseball/TeamPage.aspx?Team=OAK

Good science proceeds via falsifiable statements. In a recent review of a book that questions the helpfulness of the “quest for elegance” in physics and cosmology, Chronicle author Christopher Shea brings up the concern of falsifiability and string theory:

Like other critics of string theory and its variants, [the mathematician David Orrell] argues that it is basically unfalsifiable. If the Large Hadron Collider continues to fail to turn up evidence to support those theories, physicists can always say the problem is that they need an even more colossal collider that would hurl particles at one another at even greater speeds.

We’re going to need a bigger… uh… torus?

So what is falsifiability, and why is this Orrell guy so worried about it? Falsifiability is one way of demarcating whether knowledge is scientifically known or not; it’s an epistemological category, if that’s your game (a category of knowing). Karl Popper, early 20th century philosopher of science (and political theory, but that’s another matter), was a huge proponent of the importance of falsifiability. Basically, falsifiability is a characteristic of a statement. Here are two statements:

  1. Swans are white.
  2. There is a kettle in orbit around Betelgeuse.

The first statement is falsifiable; we know there are such things as black swans.

File:Black Swans.jpg

However–assume we don’t have the instruments to go to Betelgeuse–we have no way of ascertaining whether there is a kettle in orbit around Betelgeuse. Popper argued that the important part of this statement, or the more precise way of saying it, is that we cannot nullify the statement that there is a kettle in orbit around Betelgeuse. We could never search the whole universe for a kettle that might be in orbit around Betelgeuse–if people believed in it stubbornly enough, they could just say it was moving too fast for our instruments to detect, or it was infinitesimally small, or in an extraordinarily large orbit. You would never be able to prove the kettle wasn’t there, because it would always be possible it was just where you weren’t.

In other words, A is unfalsifiable if it is not possible to prove -A. Popper, and many scientists and philosophers since, have argued that falsifiable theories should be weighted much more heavily than unfalsifiable ones. From the quotation, for example, Orrell believes that string theory shouldn’t be taken so seriously, because whenever it fails, its proponents will just say we don’t big enough supercolliders.

Now–what on earth does this have to do with socialism?

I would argue that socialism has a falsifiability problem. The public is familiar with one prong of attack. If I had five dollars for every time I’ve heard, “but true communism has never been implemented!” (and another ten for every following groan and eye roll). This is a falsifiability problem: like string theory and the calls for ever-larger supercolliders, proponents of socialism can merely argue that x part of the formula wasn’t followed, or that the formula wasn’t correct yet, and that the idea itself is not at fault, but the execution.

So that’s one side of the problem. The other side of the issue is slightly more esoteric, but will be known to students of social theory since Marx (it’s also directly related to the post I just made on Gramsci). Marx himself–quite influenced by Hegel–believed communism would blossom naturally from capitalism, that, indeed, it necessarily followed from the contradictions in capitalism, just as capitalism had arisen from what came before it. All that had to happen was for the proletariat to become aware of their problems–which seemed obvious enough–and unite to globally and simultaneously overthrow the established order.

Except that never happened. By the Russian Revolution, there were serious quarrels amongst radicals whether the revolution would happen worldwide, or piecemeal as Communism in One Country (c.f. Trotskyism). The two most common explanations why are both unfalsifiable.

The first is that Marx was correct in assessing that communism would follow naturally, by the laws of dialectical materialism, from capitalism, but that this process will simply take longer than most observers have believed. This is an unfalsifiable proposition because the time it will take is unspecified, and believers in this proposition will always–no matter how much time has passed–simply argue that the time has not yet come when the circumstances will be ripe for communism. (I may be wrong, but it seems like there’s a parallel in the Jewish faith and the coming of the Messiah; you can’t falsify Judaism on the basis that the Messiah hasn’t come, because he could always come tomorrow.)

The second unfalsifiable proposition proponents of socialism can fall back upon is the one related to Gramsci. Namely: the revolution has not occurred because the proletariat retains a false consciousness made possible by the unequal relations of power between bourgeoisie and proletariat. In more vulgar terms, “You don’t know what’s best for you because the people with the power don’t want you to know what’s best for you, and that’s why you disagree with me.” The problem with this isn’t necessarily that it’s wrong–I don’t really think it is–but that it is unfalsifiable. You can’t disprove that someone has a false consciousness, because they’ll just say that’s what they truly believe to be in your best interests–which is exactly what someone with false consciousness would say! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes true no matter what happens.

Unfalsifiable propositions are not particularly convincing. While I think the argument for false consciousness and cultural hegemony is powerful and convincing, it encounters difficulties on the basis of its unfalsifiability. Karl Popper–no fan of socialism anyway–would be all over it on that account. Marx believed his process to be scientific, but when it comes to falsifiability, Marxist social theory is left in the lurch. That’s no reason to abandon it–I imagine I could make similar comments about other political theories–but it is something to think about.

You die from natural causes. You ascend toward a warm, white light. You immediately realize you have entered the afterlife… and (much to your surprise) it is exactly like the clichéd, kindergarten version of Christian Heaven. The ground is covered by a white, cloud-like fog. Angels fly around you and play the harp. You are wearing a comfortable white robe. Everyone there is aimlessly walking around, smiling broadly, perfectly content; this, it seems, is how you will spend eternity.

Upon your arrival, you are greeted by Jesus (and he looks exactly like the stereotypical depiction of Jesus). “Welcome to Heaven,” he says. “I think you will like it here, and I look forward to loving you unconditionally for the duration of time. But I also realize that Heaven isn’t necessarily for everyone, so I always give newcomers a chance to go to the other place, if that’s what they would prefer.”

“Are you referring to hell?” you say in response.

“Oh, no,” says Jesus. “Not hell. Certainly not hell. I would never send you to hell. But you can go somewhere that isn’t here. It’s another viable post-life option. About eighteen percent of our potential residents go in that direction.”

“What is the other place like?” you ask.

“I can’t tell you,” says Jesus. “But if you do elect to go there, you can never come back here. And you only have twenty minutes to decide.”

“Why only twenty?” you ask.

“Because I’m Jesus,” says Jesus.

And that’s the hypothetical. I’ve asked this one of people before, and heard some interesting answers. There are a couple immediate questions that arise:

  • Are you willing to give up a sure thing (Heaven) for an unknown thing (Other Place)?
  • What is desirable about Heaven?
  • If life in Heaven is, as is implied, both blissful and boring, what balance of the two is desirable?
  • To what degree is differentiation required for meaning? Can an unvaried existence be desired?
  • What might the Other Place be?

The immediate reaction I have is towards the Other Place. The reason for this lies in the nature of Stereotypical Heaven, and a distrust of its pleasantness. I think this distrust has a root in the same parts of human nature that make some facets of the Romantic revolt so alluring. In Heaven can we retain our individuality, if we are equally happy (and equally loved)? To problematize this, we might ask whether individuality is worth retaining at all. Another track is to ask whether emotion is relative. If it is relative and not absolute, the lack of variation in Heaven might render eternal bliss eternal numbness. If it is absolute–if there are no diminishing marginal returns to time in Heaven, it is impossible to be bored of bliss, one moment of beatitude is as good as the next–then we cannot really oppose this choice on the basis of pleasure.

Heaven is a place/where nothing ever happens.

An interesting wrinkle pops up if we suppose that we have accepted our place in Heaven. Would it be possible, once in Heaven, to regret one’s choice? Regret implies unhappiness, but unhappiness contradicts the nature of Stereotypical Heaven. I am led to think that it would be impossible to regret the choice to go to Heaven. On the contrary, it is very easy to see how one might come to regret choosing the Other Place. As long as the configuration of the Other Place involves a) remembrance of the choice offered by Stereotypical Jesus, and b) some sort of circumstance that would make one prefer eternal bliss, it seems almost certain that one would regret, at least for a time, the choice to spurn Heaven.

It seems we have looped back and shown quite demonstrably that Heaven is the better choice. It is impossible to regret such a choice; given this, how could it not be preferable? In order to elucidate the case against such a choice, we need to backtrack a little bit, and ask what the Other Place might look like.

The starting point is that we know it is not Heaven and it is not Hell. Heaven is Eternal Good and Heaven is Eternal Evil. The Other Place must then be either some mix of the two–sometimes good, sometimes bad–or something that cannot be described by the terms “good” and “evil.” The first case entails the existence of variation in the Other Place–perhaps variation and change and vicissitudes just like those on Earth. (To tell the truth, my hunch is that the Other Place is likely, well, life.) In the second case, the Other Place is beyond our imagination.

In the interests of length–I’ve gone on long enough, I think, so far, to make my points–I’ll cut things short here for now. I would choose the Other Place, I think, for the simple reason that I am curious.

Addendum: A highly interesting article, “Is God Happy?,” which references our question and explores a similar one at length.

Addendum II: “Blandula, Tenella, Vagula,” is a poem by Ezra Pound that also deals with the central idea of preferring Earth to Heaven.

What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?

Will we not rather, when our freedom’s won,

Get us to some clear place wherein the sun

Lets drift in on us through the olive leaves

A liquid glory? If at Sirmio,

My soul, I meet thee, when this life’s outrun,

Will we not find some headland consecrated

By aery apostles of terrene delight,

Will not our cult be founded on the waves,

Clear sapphire, cobalt, cyanine,

On triune azunes, the impalpable

Mirrors unstill of the eternal change?

 

Soul, if She meets us there, will any rumour

Of havens more high and courts desirable

Lure us beyond the cloudy peak of Riva?

NOTE: There will be no serious spoilers in this post. It should be fine for anyone to read even if they haven’t seen the movie; most of the discussion centers on a quotation that is seen in a preview.

I love movie previews. I find the best of them thrilling, while I scorn and laugh at the worst of them. If I’m getting tired of work, I need only watch a couple trailers to perk up. Earlier this year, Prometheus held my attention hostage for several months with tantalizing trailers. Later on, I came to love the Django Unchained trailers, which I first saw in Walnut Creek while getting ready to see The Master (which, incidentally, was probably my favorite movie of 2012).

I seized upon this trailer immediately not only because it showcased Tarantino’s potent mix of impeccably soundtracked dark humor and bloody action. Not just because it was obvious that the movie would be a delight (if an edgy and precarious one), full of badassery, play with the film canon, and witty one-liners. The thing that caught me, funnily enough, appealed not to the fan of cinema but to the recent graduate in anthropology. To wit, I’m referring to the quotation from this slice (if you already opened the trailer, go to about 1:25 and wait for Leo).

“I spent my whole life surrounded by black faces.

I only had one question. Why don’t they rise up and kill the whites?”

I’m calling this “Leo’s Big Question.” Of course, the irony in the film is that Django is constantly on the verge of killing Candie (Leo’s character, the owner of a huge plantation of slaves, including Django’s wife). But I had only just seen the preview, and yet the question stood out immediately to me.

It’s an obviously provocative question. For many people, the judgment about Django Unchained has centered around its depictions of race and slavery. And for most people, the provocative part of that question is its invocation of race.

Without disregarding race altogether, I’d say there’s another question inherent in Leo’s Big Question. And this question is foundational to the social sciences, sociology and anthropology in particular. That question is,

How do the few rule the many?

What other positive sociological questions are there, except those that are subordinate to this one? In the case of the film, we see many black slaves on Candie’s plantation, and a few white overseers, with Candie at the top of the pyramid. However, the same structure–the pyramid of inequality–applies in many other cases. Sometimes the pyramid is primarily conceptualized on the basis of caste or class. But the question is the same: how do the few rule the many?

Force or power are obvious answers. We’ll take Candieland as an example. The whites have the money and the guns. They consistently exercise power over the slaves, doing everything from telling them to sleep with visitors to murder them when they do not comply with orders. And yet, from Candie’s vantage, there is something else. In Leo’s Big Question, there is a hint that Candie believes that the blacks have far more power than they use; he thinks it is possible for them to “rise up and kill all the whites.” Django’s exploits aside, and I seriously do not mean to trivialize the risk of such a venture, but it would be possible for them to do so. In one scene, set in Candie’s lavish town home, Candie casually orders one slave to fight another to the death while the two owners watch. The two slaves could have beaten their owners to a pulp instead of one another, then enjoyed the delights of the home, if only until the police were called. Candie is literally surrounded by those he oppresses. He is right in suggesting that the blacks could kill him. And yet they have not.

There are a couple of really big sociological/theoretical explanations for this phenomenon. Broadly, there are two ways the pyramid can be reinforced:

  1. Force from above
  2. Acceptance from below

Small at the top, big at the bottom.

The nature of force from above is none too mysterious, and is on terrible display at several points during Django Unchained, as one would expect of a movie about slavery.

Nay, it is the second tack that now interests us. Acceptance from below is a frightening idea–why would we accept a situation that is unjust to us? However–it happens. In the film, this finds its ugly manifestation in Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, an insidious cousin to Uncle Tom. In my reading, I know this phenomenon as one Antonio Gramsci would be familiar with.

Dig the spectacles.

Gramsci was an Italian journalist, activist, and socialist, whose letters and writings from prison became leading texts for students of anthropology, cultural studies, political science, and sociology. As one-time leader of the Communist Party in Italy and astute Marxist, Gramsci was curious about why there hadn’t yet been a revolution in Western Europe, when the conditions were apparent: the proletariat were in chains, but those chains seemed to be invisible to them.

In order to explain this, he came up with his theory of cultural hegemony. Hegemony is the domination of one group over another, maintained by means of domination (force) and leadership (intellectual and moral). Domination is bloody, costly, and messy, so the hegemon would rather lead than dominate, if possible.

This is accomplished through the process of cultural hegemony, in which force from above and consent from below balance one another reciprocally; hegemony is not absolute but rather the result of compromise between the ruling class and its allies. Gramsci believed that this hegemony maintained the state, which was a powerful institution of the ruling class, an instrument which one class uses to secure its rule and enforce its preferred. In getting individuals to focus on the day-to-day, private negotiation of their individual status, the source of inequality–and potential sources for deliverance from inequality–are forgotten.

The concept at the bottom of this is false consciousness. Through the false equation of the good of the ruling class with the good of the nation as a whole (working classes included), the pyramid can stay in place. Hegemony, then, is “ethical-political in operation, but economic in origin.” Government is by consent of the governed–that’s democracy. But Gramsci argues that that consent is often invalid, because it is “educated” by a private cultural sector that instills false consciousness in the working classes, such that they act in the interests of the ruling classes rather than their own. In this way the state/ruling classes make “rational” behavior that might not really be self-interested, insinuating a new kind of logic into the fabric of daily life. The cultural logic of whole is in service to the economic interest of the rulers. (As a Marxist, Gramsci was always going to end up with economics at the bottom, but you can substitute plain old “power” if you like.)

Looping back to Django, which is set more than a half-century before Gramsci was sent to prison, we can see such false consciousness in action. Stephen–who, as valet, has much power amongst the slaves–prattles on and on with hateful epithets about the inferiority of black folk, echoing Candie’s every remark on the psychological deficiencies of African descendants with a “Yes, sir” or something more colorful. This is false consciousness in action: Stephen has adopted as his own worldview one that is antithetical to his own position as an African descendant.

Before I prattle on too long, I’d like to loop back to my original fascination with the question. It caught me not only because it was situated in the explosive milieu of race in America in the 19th century, but also because I believe Leo’s Big Question is applicable today.

Yes, this is real.

I think you know where this is going. Let’s go there together.
NOTE: I am not saying the current situation is the same as slavery. I am also not saying that false consciousness is the only thing that prevented slave rebellions (which did, of course, happen from time to time).

The other day I was invited on Facebook to use an application called Klout. At the time I didn’t know what it was, and mentioned it to the person I was sitting with. They explained that it is supposed to measure an individual’s degree of online influence. A higher score meant your social ties were stronger (you post more often, more people view and interact with those posts, etc). A couple days later, I was bored and went ahead and allowed the app to do its thing. After some cogitation, the app spit out a number. Curious, I went to the web (as one does) to figure out what it all meant.

I had figured Klout as the latest in the web navel-gazing world–those apps and sites that function mostly as leeches on our ballooning senses of narcissism. Facebook is the biggest example, but there are others, like the apps that tell us which celebrities we look like. The egalitarianism of the internet hasn’t led to Friedman’s “flat world” online so much as an elevated one. The internet hasn’t made every user middle-class; instead, it’s elevated everyone to a king, master of their own domain (blogs included).

We love thinking about ourselves–the ability to do so reflectively is the source of much of our humanity. Our present day society loves numbers. It’s why when we go to the doctor we want to quantify ourselves as best as we can (height, weight, blood pressure, pulse, etc). Klout seizes on these attributes as well as another–that we are social animals–to attract us.

There’s no harm in learning your Klout score. It’s interesting–it gives you feedback about how you use your social media. I’m not convinced a higher Klout score makes you a better person, or even a more powerful one; it just means you are a savvy and constant user of online social media.

However.

You aren’t the only one who sees your Klout score. As this article details, Klout scores are somehow public (I haven’t done research into how companies can get access to your score, or how you might be able to change your privacy settings, but it seems like pretty much anybody can see it anytime; you also don’t need to have Klout to have a Klout score, which seems kind of unfair, especially if it’s going to be used as a metric in hiring processes, as it is in the opening anecdote from the linked story). Companies have started offering immediate perks to individuals with higher Klout scores; for example, a hotel might offer room upgrades to individuals with particularly high scores.

I’m late to the Klout-bashing party. There are plenty of people who have focused on why your score is meaningless. (Note: I think Klout treats all followers as equal right now, but it would be interesting to see a score calculated using weights for your followers’ scores.) However, I’m going to suggest something different. I’m going to say that Klout might be… well, not evil, but bad.

Not this bad, but bad.

Less than fifty years ago, John Rawls was working on his Theory of Justice. Eventually, he includes the conclusion that in a just society, every (public) action should help the least-fortunate (or at least not damage them). In this sense, he advocates for a society where once you are at the bottom, you will not be pushed further down. (This is compatible with, but not coterminous with, a society of general “negative feedback,” where every move away from the mean–whether towards greater or lesser wealth–is responded to with public actions that move towards these individuals back towards the mean. A tax that is higher on the wealthy than on the poor does this.)

Klout does the opposite. Klout gives the people who already have an advantage–the ones with high Klout scores–the chance to turn their online social capital into even greater social and economic capital. We should ask ourselves, where does a high Klout score come from? It comes from using the internet in a savvy and constant way. Who uses the internet constantly? People who have had internet the longest. People who have internet on their phones. In other words, the well-off. And once you have a high Klout score, you are only likely to get a higher one–a positive feedback loop, one that accelerates inequality.

For example, the story mentions hoteliers in Vegas giving room upgrades to individuals with high Klout scores. It’s easy to see how the process works in real time. Individual with high Klout score rolls up to the desk–clerk checks out the score and promotes them to a suite with a great view. That individual takes a great picture of the view, tagging the hotel and posting to Twitter and Facebook. That individual’s photo–ceteris paribus–will get more likes and retweets, since it is from the room with the view. Therefore the individual with the high Klout score will see his score go up, even though he hasn’t really done anything meritocratic.

Rather, there has been a transaction between the individual and the hotel, although the individual was party but not privy to it. The hotel calculated that this savvy Web user would tag them, thereby garnering free publicity for the hotel. In a sense, you can argue that the individual has been paid for his services. This is–if explicit rather than unsaid, as in the article’s example–a little more defensible of a scenario, except that it only has the potential to perpetuate inequality. In fact, as we just saw, it can create and accelerate its own inequality. This not only fails to satisfy Rawl’s request, but actually completes the opposite. That’s impressively bad. Borrowing slightly from Kant’s categorical imperative, would we want a world where the Klout test–walk into a store, have your score checked, and get shunted off to second-class service when you don’t have a 60 or above–is normal? I hope not. It reeks, if slightly, of another style of segregation that used to be popular in America–and even slight similarity to that kind of society is enough to be damning.

Giving people free upgrades, much less a job, on the basis of “influence” score with accuracy issues whiffs of division into the haves and have-nots. It gives privileges to a well-connected few–seen another way, it gives them rights the rest of us don’t have.

And that, folks, is not good.

This is Ashok.

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