Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Discretion, Tolerance and Perspective

Bill James, who single-handedly revolutionized the analysis of baseball has a great column in State (still catching up from several weeks of travel, conferences, the new term, etc.) on rules, rule-breakers and rule enforcement.  His starting point is that Babe Ruth was as much of a rulebreaker as Barry Bonds, and runs from there to this:
 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.
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?"
I have blogged before about the zero tolerance society, how we often see decisions made by the fear of making a mistake, rather than using discretion to decide when a rule should be applied.  Nice to see a really smart person articulate the same idea really well.

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