Now He's Gone Too Far

Ever since the immaculate reception given to Blink, his second consecutive #1 bestseller, the sharp reporter's mind and powerful analytical skills of the New Yorker's resident genius, Malcolm Gladwell, have been given free reign to roam the socio-cultural landscape, alighting wherever their master sees fit to make the broad and dazzling intellectual linkages that have become his trademark. This year alone he has detailed how our fear of pit bulls is a form of prejudicial stereotype and that homelessness, like the long-troubled LAPD, is really about a few chronically bad apples. Then earlier this month came an account of dog whisperer Cesar Millan, which limply informed readers that sincere, fully lived-in physical gestures and phrasings of movement made people seem more authentic. (Ever hear of Bill Clinton, or Bill O'Reilly, or his faux-doppleganger, Stephen Colbert?) I like Gladwell, but with his most recent piece ("Game Theory," May 29 issue), a quasi-review of a book about a new algorithm for dissecting victory value in the National Basketball Association, he has gone too far.

The trouble begins with the opening tip, a subtitle that advises us not to believe our eyes in assessing athletic prowess. Unfortunately neither the book nor the article is about judging athletic prowess -- which is defined by strength, speed, size, quickness, and jumping ability -- but measuring a player's relative worth in terms of contribution to his team's wins. The authors of "The Wages of Wins" are Berri, Schmidt, and Brook, three Stanford economists, which Gladwell apparently views as a selling point, accepting at face value both the efficacy of their algorithm, and, more importantly, their results. After the authors weigh the relative value of rebounds, shot attempts, fouls, turnovers, etc., and plug the data into their secret tell-all algorithm, we are informed that in 2004-05, his best season, Allen Iverson was the league's 36th best player, one season after coming in a slightly less impressive 227th. We are also treated to the revelation that "journeyman forward Jerome Williams was actually among the strongest players of his generation." Iverson may be a first-class ballhog but he is undeniably one of the league's top twenty players, and while Williams might well have gone underappreciated for his tireless work ethic, defensive hustle, and hardhat, lunchpail effort on the boards, he is merely a role player.

These two assessments are thus what NBA experts would call hooey, and if they do not move the reader to put the book down and burn all extant copies they should at least force one to look more closely at the authors and their methods. Mysteriously, Gladwell does not dissect the algorithm or even explicitly describe its makeup. Nor does he apply their mysterious formula to actual league success -- do those players that advance deep into the playoffs or regularly win or have won championships come out on top in the survey, for instance? How do the star players currently tussling in an incredibly tense and exciting NBA playoffs perform in the book? More pointedly, does the algorithm measure strength of will, leadership ability, and desire for the ball with the game on the line? He instead goes in the opposite direction, as is his wont, suggesting that the difficulty of considering all of basketball's inconsistent variables when assessing talent is not dissimilar to gauging heart attack risk or buying a house. Really? And here I've been using the real estate section.

[Bona fides disclosure: I am no expert, but at 32, having watched literally thousands of NCAA and NBA games and grown up as a rabid Bulls fan in Chicago during the Jordan era, I believe I have a special understanding for what makes a player great. I also played basketball competitively in grade school and high school, all while regularly banging bodies and butting heads with four brothers on a blacktop court in the backyard, rain, shine, or snow. ]

The following example better illustrates my beef. Because he was named the league's top sixth-man yet rebounded poorly, turned the ball over frequently and shot a low percentage, Gladwell calls the story of the Chicago Bulls' Ben Gordon "most egregious." Yet what Gladwell could not know, being unfamiliar with Gordon's game and NBA play in general (writing that Iverson "writhes" through bigger defenders is a dead giveaway -- Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki might writhe through a thicket of defenders, while Iverson would glide, slash, or knife), most likely, is that 1. Gordon was a rookie that year, and thus is more than likely to decrease his turnovers as he matures as a player; 2. He is almost never near the basket and therefore not expected to get rebounds; and 3. Gordon is a streak shooter, one of the league's streakiest, and even though that does make him inconsistent, he led all of the NBA in double-digit scoring in 4th quarters in 2004-2005 and was widely regarded as one of the game's most clutch players. Finally, Gladwell's last point that Gordon's poor play led to a Win Score of dead last out of the league's top 33 scorers is not surprising considering that his 15.1 points made him the league's 32nd best scorer. Also, referring again to the case of Allen Iverson, how are we to assess a veteran player that is able to increase his relative worth six-fold over the course of one year? Should this not lead us to question the means of assessment?

Gladwell is not entirely to blame. In a rare misstep, the New Yorker editorial staff wandered out of its jurisdiction with this one. This article could have been a straight book review, with the author addressing the book's material and execution critically. Instead it was Gladwell, perhaps because of some special dispensation, taking and running with deeply suspect information about basketball ability and popular opinion, illuminating few and leaving many in the dark. When it comes to sports, stick with what got you here, Mr. Remnick. Let Roger Angell drop the 411 on baseball, all day, everday. Give us occasional slices of football and other various sports through character studies and smalltown profiles. But until you hire someone who's watched the thousands of basketball games the knowledgable fan or so-called expert requires -- someone who knows what she's talking about -- please refrain from dissecting play in the NBA. To paraphrase the quote Gladwell employs to end his piece: You can systematically track what the players do and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, but you will never know why teams win and why they lose until you watch an NBA game.


The More the U.N. Changes

After three seemingly endless days of talk stoppages, diplomatic sniping, backroom negotiations and still-born proposals sprinkled lightly with real management reform debate, a key United Nations subcommittee agreed to take another short break on the evening of the last Thursday in April.

“I know those 15 minutes,” said U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, referring to the length of the agreed stoppage in the efforts to broker a compromise between the South Africa-led bloc of 132 nations known as the G-77 and China and the more powerful donor nations led by the United States. “We have a bit longer than that, I think.”

Indeed, the break lasted nearly a full hour before the ambassadors took their seats again, agreeing only to delay proceedings until the following morning and prompting a classic Bolton sound bite. “We are at the present moment in the U.N. equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day,” said the U.S. envoy.

In that 1993 film the weatherman played by Bill Murray kept waking up in the same small town on that most meaningless of annual American rites, Groundhog Day. That the disputed G-77 measure putting a halt to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reform proposals was approved the following morning only put the rich-poor standoff in greater relief against the Byzantine task of achieving legitimate progress at Turtle Bay: however much the United Nations attempts or seems to change, member states and U.N. officials inevitably find themselves experiencing extended bouts of deja vu, raising the same complaints, battling over the same turf, and foisting musty proposals.

“Things that happen here don't reflect the reality in the rest of the world,” Bolton told The (London) Telegraph in early May. “There are practices, attitudes and approaches here that were abandoned 30 years ago in much of the rest of the world. It's like a time warp.”

As various reform efforts have wended their way through the system in the last year and come to a head over the past fortnight, a sea of opinions, decisions, and reports has washed over this most bureaucratic of international bodies, none more meaningful than the vote in the little-known but powerful Fifth Committee, which controls much of the U.N. budget. Not only did that vote leave widely praised and necessary reform proposals in tatters – placing involved parties right back where they started – it will also likely force powerful donor nations to decide next month whether to follow through on a threat to withhold funding, potentially compromising dozens of vital U.N. missions around the world.

After widely denounced failures in the 1990’s – Rwanda and Yugoslavia, to name two – and more recent debacles – the unsanctioned U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the $60-billion oil-for-food scandal, and the lead-footed response to the ongoing genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region – the 191-member organization has been widely attacked. With peacekeeping efforts quadrupled in the last decade and aid and peace-building missions rapidly increasing since the Cold War ended, the problems are unlikely to cease.

“Reform is incredibly important right now,” said Brian D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The UN is assuming more and broader tasks than ever in its history, yet the scandals that have come out bring up urgent questions about effectiveness, fraud, and abuse.”

When such questions first became a recurring theme over a decade ago, then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told The Washington Post “perhaps half of the UN work force does nothing useful.” As he closes in on his early 2007 departure, current U.N. leader Annan has in the past year pushed strongly for major changes in management, the mandate process, and procurement, with minimal impact.

Last year’s protracted discussions on adding members and eliminating the veto in the Security Council went nowhere. A new Human Rights Council was created in February to replace the 53-member Human Rights Commission, which critics attacked for being unwieldy and offering membership to violator nations. But China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Pakistan were elected to the 47-member council Tuesday, while the U.S., boycotting the group in protest, was not. And late last month the U.S. Government Accountability Office released two reports illuminating widespread internal shortcomings and claiming the body was “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” One report found procurement training and expertise seriously lacking, while the other denounced an oversight committee that was funded by the U.N. itself.

The current rich-poor dust-up was incited by Annan’s “Investing in the United Nations,” a 30-page March report that proposes to place greater budgetary control and authority over global staffing decisions – both now decided by the General Assembly – in the hands of small representative groups and the Secretary-General. The proposals would likely make the United Nations more efficient, nimble, and modern, experts say, but also decrease the input of less powerful member states. Thus the resolution drawn up by the G-77 and China, which sought to eliminate changes in budgetary decision-making and called for Annan to prepare yet another series of reports by September, including an exhaustive review of U.N. reform efforts to date.

“The G-77 feel as if they are being coerced,” said Ayca Ariyoruk, senior associate for the United Nations Association’s Global Policy Programs, who has been working with the 132-member group to clarify its position. “The status quo favors their power status: if the management reforms take this power away from them they have nothing.”

Yet in presenting and approving this measure, the poorer member states have unwittingly become opponents of U.N. progress, or as political commentator and Turks and Caicos native Anthony L. Hall put it in a Friday editorial: “this move to maintain the status quo is tantamount to cutting off our noses to spite our faces.”

South Africa's U.N. Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, whose country chairs the G-77, explained their stance.

“We believe in the Group of 77 and China in the right of every member state to have an equal say in the decision-making of this organization,” he said. “This right for us is not dependent on the financial contributions of member states to the budget of this organization.”

That budget now looms larger than ever. By about the same margin as in the Fifth Committee, the General Assembly plenary approved the South-Africa led G-77 resolution May 8, setting up a potentially larger conflict when the United Nations must establish its budget in June. Under U.S. pressure, member nations agreed in December to tie the $950 million budget for the second half of this year to achieving management reform. The U.S., European Union, and Japan are responsible for eighty-two percent of the annual budget and are thus able to essentially enact a U.N. shutdown, although Bolton has said they would not keep the body from functioning. Legislation passed by Congress in June linked U.S. funding for the United Nations to management reform but included a waiver to be approved by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should the cuts undermine U.S. interests.

“The U.S. and its allies have greatly damaged the U.N. by their blackmail,” said James Paul, director of the Global Policy Forum, a U.N. watchdog, who saw a recurring pattern but predicted an unusual outcome.

“Always in the past, other nations gave way to the U.S. threats but this time the others are standing their ground and the U.S. will be forced to give way,” he said. “I expect an agreement that will give the U.N. its second half budget and give the G-77 most of its core demands.”

Schaefer painted a different picture, arguing that more powerful nations “would be unlikely to blithely approve additional funding for a status quo that is not satisfactory.” He also underscored the urgency of the situation. “If we can’t strike now, we might never have such a great opportunity again,” he said.

Don’t be too sure.