Oct 282013

The press is full of stories about the government shutdown fiasco engineered by  Ted Cruz and those crazy House tea party republicans. But let’s not let this latest clown show obscure our understanding about who’s continuing to drive economic policy in Washington these days. Like they have since the Reagan administration, it’s still the Republicans.

These days, Republicans may be losing politically and resorting to increasingly anti-majoritarian means—gerrymandering, filibuster abuse, voter suppression, activist Supreme Court decisions, legislative terrorism—to nullify election results. But on economic-policy matters they are setting the terms. Senator Ted Cruz can be justly described as a demagogic fool, but lately he’s been on the offensive far more than the White House has. The deficit is in fairly precipitous decline, but job growth is anemic, and millions of Americans remain chronically unemployed. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and last year they won a larger share of the national vote in the House than Republicans did. And yet the dominant argument in Washington is over spending cuts, not over ways to increase economic growth and address acute problems like inequality, poor schools, and infrastructure decay. “The whole debate over the last couple of weeks is playing against a backdrop of how much to increase austerity, not to invest in the economy,” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said last week. “We are living in a time of government withering on the vine.”

Need one require supporting evidence for the claim, that’s not hard to find.

It went unnoticed amidst the debt ceiling fight, but last weekend, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House selected the lawmakers that will negotiate with the Senate to hammer out a final version of the farm bill, the massive bill that funds agriculture and nutrition programs. The main stumbling block for months has been how much money the bill should devote to food stamps; the House wants to strip $39 billion from the program, and the Senate wants to cut just $4 billion.

So don’t be distracted by accounts of the Tea Party “defeat.” The most important thing about the increasingly spectacular displays of ridiculousness emanating from the Republican Party is that their circus act is drawing our attention away from an at least equally significant problem — the failure of President Obama and the Democrats to seriously oppose the Republican ideology of domestic austerity.

The domestic economy — all of its major features from high unemployment and job insecurity and the collapse (and bailout) of the banking industry, to the spectacular success of the richest 1% of the population — is a result of forty years of right-wing antipathy to the social safety net and infatuation with unregulated markets. Since the 1970s but mostly since we elected Ronald Reagan, we’ve steadily pursued a consistent policy of deregulation, free trade, and tax cutting, all of which were trumpeted by conservatives as policies which were most likely to unleash economic growth and national prosperity. Despite electing the occasional Democrat as president and despite occasionally handing the reins of power in the House or Senate to the Democrats, these conservative economic policies have continued uninterrupted.  So the world we live in now is the fruit of these conservative economic seeds.

And the conservatives have been correct, in a sense. Certainly, the standard of living of the richest Americans has consistently gotten better since the Reagan administration. There’s been an amazing amount of technological innovation, so if you choose to measure standard-of-living by the ease with which the average citizen can check their email on a smartphone, the economy has been spectacularly dynamic and productive. But of course we also need to acknowledge that for the less-than-rich, this economy has meant flat to declining incomes, increasing unemployment, layoffs, loss of pension benefits, declining public services, and a steady decline in economic security. For the bankers on the level of Robert Rubin, it meant massive government bailouts and the lack of any criminal prosecutions after the subprime loan driven collapse of the banking industry in 2008. For the rest of us, it meant more unemployment and waves of foreclosures. If you don’t particularly like these things; if you believe as I do that the tradeoff of greater wealth and government-backed security for the very rich has not been worth the greater insecurity for the middle class and greater hardship for the poor, then you should be blaming conservative economic policies.

But the blame for these policies is bipartisan. They have been pursued by Democrats as well as by Republicans, and it’s time to start holding the Democrats accountable for their decisions. Don’t let the spectacle of republican wingnuts like Ted Cruz distract you. Clinton and Obama and far too many Congressional Democrats have pushed deregulation and austerity, and they need to be held accountable. Even after the collapse of the banking sector, there’s been hardly a peep from elected Democrats about the need to strengthen the social safety net or break up the too-big-to-fail banking conglomerates. The conversation is still all about how much we need to cut food stamps and social security.

The one exception to this behavior proves the point: Obamacare. This new law designed to increase the availability of health insurance and therefore increase ordinary Americans’ economic security has been compromised, fought, weakened, legally challenged, and filibustered since it first saw the light of day, back when Max Baucus was dragging his feet about every little reform and Barack Obama was preemptively compromising on major issues like single-payer and the public option before he was even pushed. And even now, after the law has been transformed into a mandated subsidy for the private health insurance industry, after several states have refused to participate in setting up state-level insurance exchanges, after the conservatives almost won their constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court, after brilliant neurosurgeon (and political hack) Ben Carson equated the law to slavery, and after Ted Cruz and his wingnut House allies shut down the federal government in opposition, the ACA is still the single example of any initiative by the Democrats to counter the right-wing mantra of cutting government support for this nation’s middle class and poor.

So who’s winning? The Republicans are, but that’s because the Democrats haven’t really cared to fight them. So let’s apportion the blame for the consequences appropriately. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, this means you.




Oct 112013

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort

— US Constitution, Art III, sec 3

Treason is a serious crime in the United States, that can be punished by death. It is also the only crime that the Founders felt necessary to define and restrict in the Constitution, presumably because they understood that it was too easy for kings to punish as traitors people who merely criticized the king or opposed his policies.

So it’s disappointing to see internet pundits tossing out accusations of treason without really meaning it. Right-wing pundit Jamie Kirchick, for example, earned a pat on the head from John Podhoretz for his article condemning journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill for failing to condemn vigorously enough what Kirchick thinks ought to be condemned — Edward Snowden’s leaks and Bush/Obama counterterrorism policies — by accusing them of “treason-chic.” “They are not traitors themselves, but they serve as public-relations coordinators of treasonous actors. They are working to make traitorous actions seem valiant. Call it ‘treason chic.'”

Kudos to Kirchick for recognizing that these journalists he doesn’t like aren’t actually traitors, but since Kirchick thinks that “far more than a drop of treason courses through their veins,” he ought to state explicitly what he thinks ought to be done with Scahill and Greenwald and their ilk. How many drops of treason in your political opponent’s blood are too many? Sadly, Kirchick has never engaged with this question, preferring instead to accept his pat on the head from John Podhoretz and to continue on with his responsibility-free punditry.

Sadly, Kirchick isn’t the only pundit from whom accusations of treason trip too easily from the tongue. Robert Reich, upset about the House Republicans who disagree with him about the threat posed by Obamacare, easily and quickly concludes that these legislators “have begun sounding like” traitors. Reich imitates Kirchick at his worst, when he praises our system of government and then says of his political opponents “If they don’t stop their recklessness, they’ll be out of the game.” Does Reich mean to suggest that these legislators be punished for some quasi-treasonous crime? Presumably he’s too smart to say that. But I wish that if Reich really means to level an accusation of treason against these congressmen that he’d be explicit about what ought to happen to them. How much would they have to “sound like” traitors, to actually be traitors?

Kirchick and Reich are understandably very angry at the people who disagree with them, but they’re lazy and reckless to make pseudo-accusations of treason without explaining for us what consequences they think should follow when their political opponents skirt too close to a crime which can still be punished with death in this country.

Sep 172013


This exemplifies "pear-shaped"


Last Saturday I demonstrated that I could suffer through about 11 hours on the trails around Big Sky, Montana. I’m proud to have finished the Rut 50K. But I knew after the first hour that the smart thing would have been to drop out, take my DNF, and vow to try again next year. So call me proud, but also kind of dumb.

The race started out at dawn in a gray half-light with light rain — beautiful.! I felt OK up the first climb and down the first muddy and twisty (= FUN) descent, but after that my race pretty much went pear-shaped. Every little uphill shot my heart rate through the roof. I couldn’t really catch my breath without hiking, slowly. I had diarrhea. This was not a good way to be feeling on this difficult course so early in the race. The big climb up the Bonecrusher Ridge to the summit of Lone Peak was still several kms away, but I was already completely done with racing. I was just slogging, hoping to save enough energy to self-extricate myself off the course and back to the finish without requiring a ride in the back of a truck or a on a chairlift.

My relentless forward progress eventually got me to the second aid station perched above treeline at the bottom of a huge bowl below Lone Peak, where I stood around eating gummy bears and PB&J burritos. My hands were cold and I wanted a hot chocolate and a nap. From where I stood I could look up at the ridge leading to Lone Peak and see lots of tiny dots, most of which were runners that had passed me long ago. They were climbing up into the cold, wet clouds that obscured the summit. That view alone made me colder and more tired and convinced me I should quit right away. On the other hand, looking down, I could see runners approaching the aid station behind me. They were all smiling, talking about how fun the race was, how much they were looking forward to the big climb ahead, and even though I knew some of this was intra-race bravado, I began to believe it would be wimpy to DNF right then. The aid station volunteers were so positive and optimistic that it was shameful in their presence to admit to any suffering at all. Even though I was still light-headed, cold, and weak, the peer pressure was taking effect, and I shuffled out of there thinking that maybe those gummy bears would turn things around.

We had a small descent from the aid station down to the base of Bonecrusher, and I did feel better after that descent then I had for a while – mostly because my hands weren’t as cold (and probably because it was the uphills that were causing my problems). I started to think that it would be so lame to DNF before  the Lone Peak ascent, because that ascent was the major selling point of this beautiful course. I had come all the way up to Montana to do that climb, and anyway, I could always DNF when I got to the summit. So I started up the ridge.

Bonecrusher Ridge on Lone  Peak, Big Sky, Montana

Bonecrusher Ridge on Lone Peak, Big Sky, Montana

And immediately I felt like shit again. I could only manage a slow walk, and I had to step off the route several times to allow people who were walking faster than me (all the other racers behind) to pass. I was passing no one. I would take six or seven steps and then stop for fifteen seconds to catch my breath. I could have made a strong argument for turning around and going back down, but that’s not how climbs like this work. Once you start, there’s an enormous momentum that gathers behind you and pushes you up, up, up! I was constantly thinking, will I need to be rescued on this climb? Am I getting hypothermic? Hypoglycemic? Any pulmonary or cerebral edema? Is my problem just that I’m climbing this mountain slowly? In that case, my lack of speed is my own problem and eventually I’ll be done. Or, am I about to fall over and require help from the Search and Rescue volunteers stationed along the climb? In that case, my problem will soon be their problem, too, and I’d better turn around. Always, the answer I gave was that this was just me climbing slowly. I didn’t have a headache, the short stops always were enough to catch my breath, I wasn’t dizzy, and I wasn’t nauseated or vomiting. Although there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t need a rescue in another five minutes and twenty feet higher up the mountain, I thought it was reasonably likely that I could continue my plodding until I got to the top. Luckily, that turned out to be correct, and I eventually made the summit.

Time to grab some more gummy bears and sit down. Although the aid station workers seemed much more worried about me here than they seemed to be at the last aid station, I actually felt about the same. Must have looked worse! I was surprisingly still about an hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the cut-off time. The rest of the course was, overall, downhill. Back to lower elevations with warmer temperatures and less wind. It would be silly to DNF here, right? The tough part was over! I should keep going.

The descent from Lone Peak turned out to be a relatively good stretch for me. It was a reasonably technical route down a bunch of large, loose stones, without much of a trail to speak of, just a ridgeline down, down down. Follow the always copious and easy-to-see course marking flags and hope you don’t break your ankle or fall on your face. Since I wasn’t having any joint problems at that point, I cruised down this part feeling pretty good, managed to pass about five or six people, and got back under treeline without any injuries. Oh, how I would have loved to feel like this during the rest of the race!

Alas, it was not to be. After a brief period of tagging along with a Missoula college student and another twenty-something runner along some rolling terrain, I lost touch with them on a downhill just before an insanely steep climb up to the final aid station where the volunteers happily told me I was a full 45-minutes ahead of the cutoff time and that there were only five downhill miles to go. More M&Ms, more gummy bears, a change of shoes, and I set out again feeling bad but knowing that that the finish was close.

The downhill went pretty well, but there was about 500 feet or so of uphill left, hardly even noticeable, but that climb made me feel so bad that I had to lie down next to a log for about ten minutes, less than 2K from the finish. A few more people passed me. “Yes, I’m OK, just need a break” was what I told them when they asked if I was OK. Then it started to rain, and I was actually worried about getting hypothermic within bowling distance of the finish line. So I stood up and zombie-shuffled to the finish in just less than 11 hours. Done, and without a rescue. Strong work! I got my finisher’s cowbell, and the free can of Montana beer that was my most-deserved beer ever. I had managed to finish just before the awards ceremony, and I was able to watch it. Then it was back to the hotel room to sleep and try to analyze why this race had gone so pear-shaped. (I love that phrase. “Pear-shaped.” Especially because pears aren’t badly-shaped.)

Could it be that I had a subclinical virus? Did I rest too much after Pikes Peak, or not enough? Is my diet not up to snuff? Did the four hours of sleep I got the night before slow me down? Do I have a V02 max of 35? Did I not eat or drink enough during the race? Did I not run enough this summer? Or did I just have one of those bad days?

I don’t have enough experience yet to know what exactly went wrong. I do know that this race was amazing; the organization and the course marking was flawless; the aid stations were full of great food and greater people; there were several beautiful athletic dogs hanging about the start/finish line all day.  All of that makes me think that if I had a good day, performance-wise, at THIS race, it’d be spectacularly fun. I hope to come back next year and have a good day. I’d like come early, and bring my dog. He’d LOVE to run these trails!



Sep 102013

It’s downright unfashionable to have to be rescued. But is it wrong?

Mountain and wilderness people of all sorts — including climbers, backpackers, trail runners, hunters, skiers, photographers — are almost universally proud of their self-sufficiency in the backcountry. They’re used to talking about risks from weather, getting lost, falls, avalanches, wild animals, lightning. They’re familiar with all kinds of traditional and exotic gear and methods designed to minimize these risks. They sometimes sneer (I have, and I’m far from an expert mountaineer) at the casual tourists who set out each summer from roadside trailheads in jeans and hoodies, a bottle of Coke and a pack of cigarettes, thinking that it will take them only about an hour to climb that mountain that looks so close, but who quickly become dehydrated, get caught in a thunderstorm, become hypothermic, get lost, and need to be rescued. “We,” these mountain people think, “aren’t even close to being that stupid.”

And yet, even expert mountain people occasionally get in over their heads and need to be rescued. If these experienced people are smart, they’ll swallow their pride and embarrassment and call for assistance. That’s what Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg just did while climbing the Aiguille du Midi last Saturday.

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo: skyrunning.com)

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo: skyrunning.com)

Jornet and Forsberg apparently got stuck on the Frendo Spur in running shoes when the weather worsened and decided to request assistance from the Chamonix mountain rescue team, the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc. From reading various accounts of the event, it appears that they decided that further climbing was unsafe once they had unexpected delays in the ascent and the weather got worse. By all accounts I’ve seen, the rescue was done safely and professionally. Emelie Forsberg describes events like this:

Kilian and I went out climbing on Frendo Saturday morning. We had checked the weather, checked the route and we had in our mind that we could do the epron pretty fast. We estimated the time with the experience we had before. We know that we can move pretty fast in that kind of terrain.
We went climbing in a good pace. And when we reached the icy ridge we had only been out for a few hours. I thought to myself that woooha this must go really wrong if we don´t make it up there before 5 pm.
After the icepart we decided to go more in the rocks instead of the most common way up that was on the steep ice. That was in our plan the whole way, because we didn´t bring the proper gear for the ice. And that we knew before we started.

On the rock, I started to became a bit stressed. I was finding a way up that was a bit loose and I also didn´t have the best feelings after the icepart where I hurted my foot.
We took time climbing up, rappelling down, trying to find another way and so on we did for a while.
I became so cold and I couldn´t focus my thought very well. I was stressed and felt captured. We started to talk about possibilities. Rappelling down or try to do the last part even if we didn´t know if we could reach the summit that way or the last way out; call the rescue.

Kilian Jornet says this about their rescue:

On September 7th, I had planned a mountain route on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi (France), the so-called Frendo spur. This was a route that I had already done twice before on my own with only the minimum of material. I do this type of outings frequently, alone or accompanied, as they are both the basis of my training and of my free time.

I was accompanied by Emelie Forsberg and we were both equipped with light materials (short sports leggings, fine down jackets and trainers). We set off at dawn from Plan d’Aiguille, at 8:30 am to be precise, planning to return some 4 hours later, which was the time we estimated the journey would take. We had checked the weather forecast the day before, which announced bad weather as of 5 pm, and we both carried rock climbing materials (a set of friends, climbing chocks, 60m of rope …) and also ice climbing equipment (2 ice axes each, technical crampons and ice screws).

We started off at a good pace along the route, and at 9 am we started to climb roped together. At 12 we were about an hour from the summit. There, on the last stretch of the climb, we took a wrong turn and when we realized what had happened, we abseiled down to get back on the right path, losing about 3-4 hours. About 50m from the summit, my companion had a problem, and it was at that moment that we decided to call the PGHM (high mountain rescue team), aware that the weather would worsen in an hour’s time. We decided to make that call so as not to take a greater risk. At that altitude, it was me who had more experience and so I was responsible for the safety of my fellow climber. We were not exposed to serious risks because we were roped together and had the chance to abseil down if rescuers had been unable to reach us.

The rescue team told us that, due to the weather, a helicopter could not be used, and they would reach us on foot taking the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then abseiling down the 50m that separated them from the top of the Aiguille. It took 4h for the team to arrive at the scene after the call was made. From there, in a very professional and secure way, we were taken to the top of the Aiguille, from where the cable car took us down to Chamonix. We didn’t suffer any injuries or major consequences, apart from suffering a bit from the cold.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the mountain rescue teams for their work, which is always so professional and efficient.

This is a warning that the mountain is a hard and dangerous place, even when precautions are taken. One must be humble in the mountains, because a high price can be paid for our failures, especially when travelling light. We must accept and be aware of the risks that we are prepared to take individually and with the people who accompany us, depending on our physical and technical skill and also our experience.

As is usual when a rescue like this takes place, there’s been criticism of Jornet and Forsberg’s decisions. In retrospect, there were plenty of things the pair could have done differently to avoid the predicament they found themselves in. Most of the criticism has been aimed at their choice of gear — running shoes and light clothing. The most aggressive of the critics implicitly or explicitly accuse Jornet and Forsberg of moral malfeasance, of selfishly choosing to take risks that, once things went bad, put their rescuers in danger and imposed costs on the public. Commenting on Emelie Forsberg’s blog, Alex Fernandez writes:

I have deep respect for what you do, you and Kilian. Very inspirational. BUT the main question here is : where ends everyone’s passion and wishes ? Wanna move fast & light in moutains ? Being rescued has a price. You put the PGHM guy’s life at risk, just because you wanna move light and fast, and moreover, at the expense of every french resident. We don’t have to pay the bills for your passion.

There is something to this argument. Where does the freedom to choose our path in the mountains butt up against the imperative not to burden others tasked with rescuing us from mistakes and misfortune? What costs, what risks, should we incur to support the passions of climbers like Jornet and Forsberg? In a perfectly-realized libertarian world, none. Ideally, we each would face the consequences of our own choices in the mountains alone. We would never call for rescue, realizing that this would be imposing risk and cost upon the rescuers. As a close second-best alternative, if we did request a rescue, we would reimburse the rescue group after the fact for the costs they incurred while rescuing us.

I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it does have limits. First of all, it’s not always clear what counts as a “mistake” in the mountains. What looks a priori like a reasonable decision will become, a posteriori, an obvious mistake if things go bad and you need to be rescued. In retrospect, every person that needs to be rescued did something (or failed to do something) that would have prevented their need for rescue. In this sense, the fact of being rescued inevitably reveals a mistake. But, a priori, most people make decisions about risk that look reasonable. They anticipate the weather as best they can. They plan their route as best they can. They account for dangers and risks as well as they can. But it is a fact about traveling in the mountains that all risk cannot be eliminated. And protecting against some risks often increases your exposure to other risks. A classic example is the tradeoff between “light and fast” vs “heavy and slow.” If you take less gear, you gain safety because you can travel faster, and every mountaineer knows that safety is often found in speed — get where you’re going before the weather changes. But of course, if you get caught out in deteriorating conditions, you’ll be in more danger if you don’t have a lot of gear to keep you warm or finish your climb.

The Frendo Spur (photo: chamonixtopo.com)

The Frendo Spur (photo: chamonixtopo.com)

Secondly, the suggestion that every rescue unjustly burdens the rescue service or imposes unfair risks upon rescuers just isn’t true. Every professional rescuer, such as those with the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc, willingly chooses to join the team and to respond to calls for assistance. Many of these professionals derive immense satisfaction from using their considerable technical skill to rescue people. That’s why they volunteer or are hired for these services. No one forces them to do it. They understand, as every mountaineer does, that if people travel in the mountains, people will require assistance in the mountains. There is nothing unforseen about the risks these rescuers are taking.

And the costs that the rescue group or general public incur for these rescues are the foreseeable other side of the coin of the benefits these people obtain by encouraging  people to travel in the nearby mountains. The village of Chamonix, for example, derives immense economic benefit from their location at the foot of Mont Blanc, precisely because it’s such a good spot for mountain enthusiasts from around the world to visit, spend time and money in the local hotels and restaurants, between excursions into the mountains where risk is unavoidable. Chamonix is so popular precisely because of people like Jornet and Forsberg who, daily, are making journeys into the mountains and exposing themselves to the risks that go along with this. In fact, the notoriety and fame of Chamonix is disproportionately augmented by the bold and risky exploits of world-class runners and climbers who draw press coverage for their exploits, more so than the average tourist who rides to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in the telepherique.

It’s not a bad idea, of course, for rescuees to give back to the mountain rescue groups that help them. But it’s a tougher case to make that this should be required by law or by morality. There are cases where people show bad judgment when calling for a rescue. If you go hiking in the Grand Canyon and get thirsty, it’s not reasonable to call for a helicopter to fix the problem. But these stories are rare — most people of all experience levels try to be self-sufficient and to minimize risk. If you are human, and you go into the mountains, you will eventually need to ask for some help. It’s not a moral failing.

Sep 072013

Malcolm Gladwell continues to argue against the ban on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in elite athletic competition. Since he is such an intelligent person and such a good writer, he should be held to a much higher standard than he’s managed to meet so far.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

One of the problems with Gladwell’s New Yorker article questioning the ban on doping in sports was how vague it was. He strongly hinted that he was in favor of legalizing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) but chose not to say so directly. Fortunately, he has removed all doubt about his position in a follow-up interview.

In the interview, we learn that Gladwell is in favor of “bringing PEDs in out of the cold” by “liberalizing” the rules against PED use. He supports legalizing and then regulating PEDs according to “medically appropriate principles.” He is also in favor of bringing “total transparency” to elite-level competitive sports by instituting “complete bio-passports for everyone” documenting the PEDs each athlete is taking and what the effects have been on, for example, their hematocrit levels.  According to Gladwell, his proposals will help to remedy the terrible unfairness that exists now, where athletes born with unfavorable genetic characteristics are not allowed to use all of the miracles of modern pharmaceutical science to remedy the disadvantages they face when competing against others with natural genetic gifts.

But won’t the average athlete then feel pressured to dope? asks the perceptive and probing interviewer. “I would never imagine that [PED use] would spread to weekend warriors,” replies Gladwell. Practically begged by the interviewer to acknowledge that critics of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong are correct to condemn these athletes as “cheaters” who willfully flouted the rules against doping, even though those rules might not seem rational to him, Gladwell declines to do so. He prefers instead to call A-Rod a “rebel.” At the end of the interview, Gladwell plays the “that’s-just-the-way-it-is” card, suggesting that our current ban against PEDs is equivalent to pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century.

Does Gladwell imagine that this last barb will sting? If so, he’s mistaken. His entire position is nonsensical at best and for me at least, aesthetically (athletically?) ugly. Some of his critics have suggested that Gladwell’s value system is “messed up,” but that’s actually just fine. His logic is a complete mess.

Item 1: Imagine that we do what Gladwell suggests and legalize all “safe” forms of doping, regulating it according to “medically appropriate principles.” We collect and publish biopassports on all elite athletes, including whatever measurable physiological parameters Gladwell wants to include — hematocrit, VO2 max, lactate threshold, length of Achilles tendons — whatever. What will have changed? There will still be regulations prohibiting “unsafe” PED use that doesn’t adhere to “medically appropriate principles,” and these regulations will need to be policed. There will still be “rebel” athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will disagree with where the line has been drawn, and take it upon themselves to surreptitiously cross the line without admitting it. (Will Gladwell then be willing to call these athletes “cheaters”?) There will continue to be technological innovations that allow athletes to artificially increase some parameter that isn’t measured by the biopassports of the time. I can think of several plausible scenarios off the top of my head. How about glycogen storage? Will we measure that in the biopassport, and can we feasibly measure it? What about lung function? What about when a lab comes up with a pill that allows athletes to do the mental things that Gladwell recognizes are so important for elite athletic success but are nevertheless functions of genetic inheritance that Gladwell finds so unfair? Will we (can we?) assign athletes a “willpower” number, a “concentration” number, a “smile all night and focus on your own race a-la Rory Bosio” number for their biopassports? What should we do about the innate intelligence that allows athletes to strategize during a match, to learn from past competitions, and to outthink opponents? What if there were a pill that allowed all of us to become, like Rafael Nadal, the “Leonardo da Vinci of tennis“?

My point is that since Gladwell is still willing to say that he’d draw a line between permitted and forbidden PEDs, the regime that he advocates won’t be any different for the things that mattter to Gladwell than the one that exists now. Natural differences will still exist and will still make competitions “unfair.” If Gladwell imagines that technology can level the natural differences that make up the “great menagerie” and which prevent athletics from being a “contest among equals,” he’s going to have to go a lot further than allowing PEDs. Surgery for everyone to make their calves the same length. Frequent, documented VO2 max testing for all athletes. To imagine trying to eliminate natural differences between athletes is to reject it as impossible. The simple difficulty of distinguishing between differences arising from factors that Gladwell presumably can tolerate (better training, more willpower) from differences that are randomly assigned by genetic luck is enormous and will resist Gladwell’s liberalized PED-with-biopassport system. And so long as there are prohibitions, there will be athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will lie and cheat to get around them. These athletes will be “rebels” against Gladwell’s regime of rules, too, but at what point will Gladwell be willing to condemn them as cheaters?

Gladwell’s athletic PED-driven utopia will remain a fantasy. So the practical issue that requires debate is: Gladwell thinks the place where the line between permitted and forbidden athletic augmentation is currently drawn, isn’t drawn in the right place. He wants to draw one someplace else in order to permit more PEDs. But is he persuasive about the need to do this? No he isn’t.

Item 2: If Gladwell has an irrationally rosy view of what PEDs can do to eliminate natural differences between athletes, he has an equally rosy view about the consequences of liberalization for non-elite athletes. As a non-elite athlete myself, I can speak from personal experience that so much of athletic culture arises out of attempts of weekend warriors to emulate the elites. I’ll spend $170 for a pair of Salomon S-Lab Sense trail running shoes because that’s the shoe that Kilian Jornet wears! And Salomon knows this; their enormous budget for athlete sponsorship depends on this being true. Whatever your sport of choice, you don’t have to think for more than a second to know that this is true. Tennis? You want Rafael Nadal’s racket. Cycling? If you could drop five figures in cash for one of the bikes Mark Cavendish uses, you’d do it. We already rush out to the store to buy Udo’s Oil because our favorite runner is adding it to their cottage cheese — if that runner was publicly adding microdoses of epo, only the financial burdens would keep the weekend warriors from using it, too. And anyone who’s seen some fat corporate lawyer pedaling along Lake Michigan in Chicago on a Saturday with his corpulent self perched upon the same bike model Chris Froome rode up the Alpe d’Huez will realize that this financial barrier doesn’t apply to all weekend warriors. Would it really matter if everyday schlubs were taking epo? Maybe, maybe not, but Gladwell is prosaically wrong when he says that they won’t.

Item 3: The safety of PEDs isn’t a binary thing, such that one set of PED regimens are safe, and another set are unsafe. Gladwell imagines that we should permit “safe” PED use, but how do we identify which uses are safe? There are no clearly agreed-upon “medically appropriate principles” that separate reasonable, prudent use of PEDs from unreasonable and imprudent. Like all drugs, the magnitude of the risks from PEDs exist on a spectrum, and the point at which anyone draws a line between “safe” and “unsafe”, “medically appropriate” and not, is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. Gladwell in his interview mentions the current UCI cutoff for a rider’s hematocrit level in cycling – 50%. There is a limit because in the recent past riders have died after their blood sludged in their vessels and stopped flowing because their hematocrits were so high. So the UCI drew an arbitrary line at 50% hematocrit and declared that riders would not be permitted to race if their hematocrit was higher than this. That doesn’t mean that a 50% hematocrit is “safe” while 51% is “unsafe.” 50% is safer than 51%. It is more dangerous than 49%. The safety and risk profile of elevated hematocrit levels is gradually sloping, not binary. The UCI’s limit is, inevitably, an arbitrary one. Perhaps it’s appropriate and perhaps not, but it is arbitrary, and reasonable people will disagree about where to draw the line. If Gladwell is unsatisfied with the current limits, he can’t just say “increase the limit until it becomes unsafe.” He’s got to make the more difficult argument that the inevitable loss of safety he’s proposing will be worth it. He hasn’t made this argument.

Item 4: “Fairness” in sports isn’t the kind of “fairness” that Gladwell says he wants. Gladwell’s use of the word “fair” when applied to sports is very odd. To say that a sporting competition is “fair” usually means that all of the competitors are required to play by the same rules. That they all know what those rules are and that they all abide by them. Gladwell, by contrast, thinks that natural differences in athletic ability between athletes renders the competition “unfair.” This is true in a simplistic sense, and we already do a good job of correcting for this. Sumo wrestling contests between 350-lb men and 35-lb girls are “unfair” in this sense. It is “unfair” to expect a 50-year-old runner to outsprint Usain Bolt over 100 meters. We have age-group awards in marathons because we understand that our athletic ability waxes and wanes over the course of our lives, naturally. We have weight classes in boxing to ensure that fighters with roughly equal physical attributes fight each other. But we don’t prohibit on grounds of “unfairness” someone with a naturally low percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs from sprinting against Usain Bolt. We’re prepared to say, simply, that this guy just isn’t as good a sprinter as Bolt is, not that Bolt wins “unfairly.”

Our common understanding of what “fair” competition means makes sense. Lance Armstrong was the perpetrator of “unfair” competition when he chose to race the Tour de France using dope. He was not the victim of unfairness because his un-doped hematocrit may have been less than Jan Ullrich’s or Iban Mayo’s.

Gladwell is in a tiny minority of people who evidently derive no pleasure from seeing naturally-gifted athletes demonstrate their natural advantages in competitions against other gifted athletes. It’s a beautiful thing to watch Usain Bolt run precisely because of his natural gifts of speed, which Bolt has augmented to the maximum possible level with training. When I watch Bolt sprint, I’m not rueing how unfair it is that some other sprinter wasn’t born with the same combination of fast-twich muscle fibers, oxygen-utilizing capacity, leg shape, and lung size of Usain Bolt. I feel sad for Malcolm Gladwell that he, apparently, fails to see beauty in Bolt’s running, and sees unfairness instead.

Item 5: Seriously Mr. Gladwell, the nineteenth century? This is the kind of rhetorical device that makes me cringe, and someone with the intelligence and insight of Malcolm Gladwell shouldn’t stoop to using it. Obviously, it’s untrue. Because we prohibit some technologies that improve athletic performance and prohibit others, does not mean we’re somehow anti-technology in general, or that we prefer to live in the past. Even Malcolm Gladwell, presumably, would retain some limits on PED use, and not allow athletes to use any and every technology to help them win, but that doesn’t mean Gladwell is some kind of Luddite. Obviously, neither are Gladwell’s critics who would like to retain the current bans on PEDs in sports.