ruminations about replacement value

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Your Humble Blogger has some thoughts about irreplaceability running around in the old brainbox this week, and what’s a blog for if it’s not for writing those thoughts up and what happens, right?

Anyway—I have made the point about Harvard, that if the two thousand or so people who were admitted this year were replaced by the two thousand or so who were next on the list, nobody would be able to tell the difference. Every year there are plenty of people who don’t get admitted into Harvard who are indistinguishable from those that do, and vice versa. I made that point in reference to the Oscars, where (in my opinion) we could easily replace all the nominated actors with a new list of equally worthy nominations, because there will always be more really good performances than there are slots for awards nominations, and because while there are good performances and bad ones, there is no objective way to correctly rank the good ones.

I was thinking about this recently in reference to an article in The Grauniad on the television show Friends, in which both Larry Hankin and Christina Pickles, who were much older and more experienced than the stars of the show, relate how impressed they were with the young actors. Ms. Pickles specifically says that she “knew Jennifer Aniston would be a huge success” because of she was “a really special actor”. And I thought, but surely most really special actors do not make huge successes.

Now, I never really got Friends, but I do understand that it was a phenomenon, an outlier, one of the most successful shows ever and one of the most successful casts ever. If instead of casting the six actors they did, they had cast six entirely different people, it would almost certainly have been less successful, simply because it’s extremely rare for a show to be that successful. But I don’t know that I would have thought, really, that if you had cast six different people that they would have been worse actors in any sense. I would have said that the ones they cast turned out to be the right actors, not necessarily the best actors.

On the other hand… I repeatedly referred to John Kerry as the Neifi Perez of Politics, by which I meant that he was very, very good at it—much better than you would think, since you only really see him in comparison with other people whose skills are even more extraordinary. And I don’t know if I ever went into this in any detail, but I think this is something about athletics that’s it’s a bit difficult to get one’s head around. When you’re in high school or middle school, you probably were in gym with someone who was the best athlete in the school. That person was extraordinary, even at that age. Ran the fastest, had the best hand-eye coordination, was the strongest, all that stuff. That boy or girl may have seemed like an alien with superpowers—he did at my school. And that maybe that guy went on to a Division One college and it immediately became obvious that he wasn’t up to that standard. And most of the guys who play at Division One colleges aren’t up to the professional standard. I’m met two guys who were picked in the MLB draft, and both of them told me that they had no chance—none—of ever hitting the curve balls of the guys who were in the rookie leagues. And the guys who can hit the rookie leaguers mostly don’t make it to the majors. And most of the guys who make it to the majors aren’t all-stars.

My point being that unlike my assessment of the incoming class of Harvard frosh, if you replaced the players on the Baltimore Orioles with those on the Lehigh Valley IronPigs or the Memphis Redbirds, everyone would be able to spot the difference in the quality of play immediately. That’s not even a question. Baseball statheads argue about what replacement value is because baseball players are difficult to replace. Harvard frosh aren’t. And politicians… I mean, I think my Neifi Perez of Politics line only works if the best politicians really are irreplaceable in some sense, so I suppose I’ve been thinking that politicians generally are like that.

On the other hand, my reaction to the candidates currently running for the Democratic Nomination is that they’re pretty much all fine. Senators Klobuchar, Harris, Booker, Gillebrand and Warren, and Governors Inslee, McAuliffe and Hickenlooper, and Sherrod Brown, and Beto O’Rourke, and Julián Castro, and even Handsome Ol’ Joe Biden, Gd Bless Him, all seem like they would do just fine in the White House. I mean, I have preferences, and I expect I will have stronger preferences as time passes, but that’s a dozen people who I think I’d be perfectly happy voting for in November. Doesn’t that make them replaceable?

[this is a line indicating the passage of time, like 🕐 🕑 🕒 🕓 🕔 🕕 🕖 🕗 🕘 🕙 🕚 🕛 or a series of ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ things, which all look so terrible on a blog post, don’t they?]

Having written all the above a couple of days ago and having set it aside to consider if it was worth posting, today I discover, in the obituary for Albert Finney that he rose to fame after (among other things) going on for Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus. I wish I’d seen Albert Finney onstage, and also that there was proper film available of his Shakespeare roles (Sir’s Lear in The Dresser definitely not counting), and I consider him one of the great actors of a generation that includes (f’r’ex) Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Eileen Atkins—but replacing Laurence Olivier? Yeesh.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “ruminations about replacement value

  1. Chris Cobb

    The thing about value in politics is that “replacement level” is defined not by the job politicians do in office but by their ability to win election. In an electoral context, its easy to measure replacement level: politicians rise above replacement level when they are elected; politicians drop below replacement level when they are replaced. Unlike baseball, replacement level in politics is not league-wide but contest-specific.

    For elected officials, one can assess their effectiveness in office by a variety of measures, and their effectiveness in office will have some bearing on whether they remain above elective replacement level or not, but only some bearing. Maybe our electoral politics would be improved if we created fantasy government leagues, so that people would pay closer attention to the value that various elected officials were adding?

    Anyway, when you say that a whole bunch of the Democratic contenders would do just fine in the White House and suggest that this equivalence means they are replaceable, it seems to me that you mistaking “effectiveness in office” for “elective value.” It would be nice if these two values were indeed equivalent, such that the candidate who is most able to win election would be the best at governing as President, but . . .

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      You are right, of course—I was referring to how well I think the various candidates would perform in office. And given the mechanism for replacement, yes, the replacement value for most elected officials is based on campaign skills, rather than actual performance. This is… a problem with the system. Ah, well, systems have problems.

      On the other hand, in the specific case of the Presidential general election, I have come to believe that the ‘electability’ question is moot—almost any candidate that can win the nomination would do within a couple of points of any other candidate who could have won it. Now, a couple of points is bigger than the margin of victory a lot of times, so I’m not saying that it makes a difference, but I don’t think that we can trust that we know, with all of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses that gain them and lose them a tenth of a point here or there, what the actual difference would be between candidates.

      That is—I don’t think we can tell whether Sen. Klobuchar is more or less electable than Sen. Booker, or whether Martin O’Malley would have got that handful of votes that Hillary Clinton didn’t get (without losing a larger handful of other votes). My opinion at the moment is that we should support candidates who appear to have the skills, and then assume that the ability to win the nomination proves whatever we need to know about ‘electability’.



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