Archive for December, 2008

Don’t believe everything you read: Jeff Jacoby’s column of 12/28/08

December 28, 2008

Background.  Jeff Jacoby starts his column by quoting Oliver Cromwell.  “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”  He ends his column by writing “My resolution for 2009 is to keep Cromwell’s reproach in mind with every column I write.”


Dear Jeff,

Your resolution is an honorable one, and one that other pundits would do well in following.  As for myself, it comes quite naturally to me to accept my fallibility.  Moreover, one of my favorite way of learning is to state an opinion or conjecture to someone who is more knowledgeable than I am, and then have them explain why I am wrong.  

I was once extreme in doubting my own fallibility.  In college, I once said to a friend after a week filled with self doubt. “I am doubting every opinion I state.”  I then was silent for a few seconds, and followed up with “I wonder if that is true.”  Over the years, I have developed more confidence in my ability to make judgments.  At the same time, I am keenly aware of the limits of my knowledge, and of my own fallibility.  

One of my heroes is Benjamin Franklin.  At the Constitutional Convention, he stated his support for signing the new constitution as follows.  ” I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others….On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

Jeff, best wishes in your resolution.  I look forward to your columns for the new year.  Best regards, Jim


Obama and Peeved Progressives. Jeff Jacoby’s column of 12/24/08.

December 24, 2008

Background.  Jacoby points out that progressives are disappointed with some of Obama’s less progressive appointments (Clinton as Secretary of State, Gates at Defense, an economic team that has favored deregulation in the past.) as well as distressed by Warren’s role in the inauguration.  He points out that this was predictable from what Obama promised in the campaign.#Jacoby’s column#


Dear Jeff,

First of all, I wish you a Happy Hanukkah and a Happy New Year.  Second, I agree with almost everything you wrote in your editorial.

A useful analogy to Obama’s governance style might be to think of it in terms of a football field.  (This analogy is borrowed from Rachel Maddow).  Obama’s voting record and natural inclinations are located on the Progressive’s 30 yard line.  (The other side of the field would normally be called “Conservative”, but for much of Bush’s Presidency, his side was “Evangelical.”)  Obama is progressive by nature, but he is no Dennis Kucinich, who is located around the 10 yard line.  In addition, Obama’s governance style is very close to the 50 yard line.  He has chosen moderates for a number of cabinet positions, as well as those slightly on the progressive side as well as those slightly on the conservative side.  His goal is to help to accomplish important legislative objectives, to improve regulation in the executive branch, and to have a more bipartisan and more multilateral approach to international issues.  He has chosen individuals who are extremely smart, pragmatic, and experienced.

At the same time, he wants to keep an open dialogue with others who disagree with him, and is willing to reach out to those on the other side if there is agreement on some important issues.  He is reaching out to Evangelicals in his choice of Warren, even if it offends many of his supporters.  Obama agrees with Evangelicals such as Warren on some important issues.

You say “It is never advisable to fall in love with a politician.  Sooner or later, you will feel betrayed.”  Perhaps it is good advice.  But Obama has honored what he said he would do on almost every front (as you say).  

I have thought for almost a year that Obama can be one of the truly great Presidents, based on his intelligence, his integrity, his temperament, and his governance style.  I still think he can be great.  It’s not love; perhaps, it’s better to call it hope.  If anything, my hope is at least as strong today as it was a year ago.       Best regards, Jim

A permanent case of the swelled head: Jeff Jacoby’s column of 12/10/08

December 19, 2008

Background.  Jacoby praises Mario Cuomo for his lack of hubris in choosing not to sit for an official portrait.  He then goes on to attack others for their hubris, including Barack Obama.

Dear Jeff,
I think you give too much credit to Mario Cuomo for a simple act of not sitting for a portrait.  Perhaps it is a sign of modesty on his part; but if it is such a sign, it is a very small sign, and not deserving of so much attention.
     At the same time, it is not your comments about Mario Cuomo that I find objectionable.  Rather it is your comments about Barack Obama that I find to be unfair and cause for this letter.  You write “Barack Obama has yet to take office, but he has already set the modern record for political narcissism.”  What is your evidence?  Your evidence is “faux-Greek columns”, a “triumphal foreign tour”, and a “quasi-presidential seal.”  But all aspects of your evidence was in the context of a heated Presidential campaign.   It is likely that Obama (or his staff) made these decisions primarily on a political basis, as would be appropriate.   You may not like the politics, but there is no reason to transform these decisions into the basis for a personal attack. You are very quick to argue that you can see Obama’s underlying motive, and it is vanity.   It is uncharitable on your part to attribute bad motives (and venal behavior) to Obama based on so little evidence.  And in my opinion, it was very poor evidence, not even pointing in the direction that you suggested.
    As for whether Mario Cuomo or Barack Obama suffers from pride, it is difficult to run for high office without some aspects of that sin.  But as far as I can tell from the way he lives his life, his political writings, and the way he interacts with his family and friends, Obama is remarkably well adjusted.

Regards, Jim

First letter to Jeff Jacoby

December 19, 2008

Dear Jeff,

Both family and friends have suggested to me that I would enjoy writing a blog. I thought hard about what to include in a blog, and decided to include several topics including politics, undergraduate teaching, research within my field of Operations Research, as well as other eclectic comments that come to mind.   One of the first topics that I decided to write about was a blog of responses to your op-ed pieces in the Boston Globe.

I often read editorials, generally ones that share my pragmatic, slightly left of center viewpoint, as well as some that are more liberal.  I rarely read conservative editorialists.  But you are a notable exception.  I regularly read your op-ed pieces.

I like your writing style and your thoughtful approach.  At the same time, I am often frustrated with your leaps of logic, and often disagree with your conclusions.  Ultimately, I enjoy your editorials because they are intellectually engaging, and they often lead me to think through issues deeper than I might otherwise do.

This blog is an opportunity for me to share the thoughts I have after reading your op-ed pieces.   I intend to write responses phrased as letters to you.   This is (or will be) my first post. Subsequently, I’ll start each of these posts with a brief descriptor of your editorial as well as a link, followed by a letter to you explaining why I disagree with what you wrote , or possibly why I agree.  I don’t expect to respond to all of your editorials, but hope to respond to at least one per week on average.

You are welcome to respond to these posts or not, as you see fit.  For me, this blog is an avocation.  For you, your op-ed writings are part of your vocation.  I understand that our incentives are quite different.  But I do want you to know that you will always be a welcome guest.

Best regards, Jim Orlin


December 18, 2008

I have taught 15.053, introduction to Management Science, many times.  And I still enjoy it.  The purpose of this blog is to share thoughts about teaching the subject, and possibly share educational materials as well.  I encourage teachers and students to take part.  In case you are a student with a question, I don’t plan on using this blog to answer technical questions about optimization.


December 18, 2008

I am a professor at M.I.T.  Both friends and family suggested that I would enjoy doing a blog.  I hope that they are right.