Some Things Are Not Worth Having
Here are three recent examples of those who thought otherwise
Nearly every pursuit in life at some point, in some way, requires a calculation of costs versus benefits. Cost-benefit analysis is more than some sort of mathematical exercise; if it were only that then its practice would be a matter of simple arithmetic or perhaps simply viewing some graph on a computer screen reflecting crossing lines at a clearly defined point.
Unfortunately, conducting such analyses are more often the product of objectivity metered with a high degree of subjectivity. There are always things we can’t accurately measure, and many others that we might not even be aware of that have considerable influence on an outcome.
In the military sphere, we learned long ago that a major factor affecting outcomes will be the actions the opponent elects to take, or perhaps not take. As military people always note, in any operation, no matter how well planned, the “enemy gets a vote.” And that vote can come with a heavy weight.
But another consideration is simply the longer-term consequences as opposed to the near-term satisfaction. Sometimes when one zealously pursues something, the near-term realization of benefits may not adequately account for clear costs that are longer-term. Barry Bonds, the home run king of baseball, used performance-enhancing drugs to elevate one of major league baseball’s most cherished records — home runs hit in a single season — and in the process diminished himself. The path Bonds chose, one that traveled through banned substances, meant that his record will be forever tarnished along with Bonds’ reputation. In this case, the benefits were immediate, but the far heavier costs longer term, costs that accumulate every year when Bonds (and other fellow PED travelers) are denied a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
What we are seeing currently is a massive outbreak of failed cost-benefit analyses. It is unclear why, perhaps it is simply the trend of the times where individuals only focus on near-term gains — instant gratification seemingly running rampant these days. And this “pandemic” is seen across numerous disciplines. Here are three that have been (arguably) quite spectacular over the past two years. And given that the first is a story from the recent Beijing Olympic games, I’ll use a ranking based on the universally recognized Olympic hierarchy.
The Bronze Medal — Olympic Skater Kamila Valieva
The medal awarded here will most likely be the only one Valieva ever receives. Hers became the biggest story of the Beijing Olympics. Valieva was a supremely gifted figure skater and seemed destined to win gold. However, she had tested positive for using a banned substance making even her appearance at the games controversial. The Olympic committee judging such things allowed her to continue competing while they further reviewed her case, but did rule that if she won a medal there would not be the traditional medal ceremony pending a final determination.
Valieva saved everyone the trouble. Her final performance was disastrous, sparing the committee the likely embarrassment of rescinding her medal in the future, but allowing those who did win medals to have their award ceremony.
It was unclear whether Valieva wanted to continue her medal quest. As her final performance showed, her heart was not in skating under such circumstances, and she crumbled under the heavy scrutiny. And as NBC lead Olympics reporter Mike Tirico aptly asked, was Valieva “the villain, or the victim of villains?” The real villains were most likely her handlers from the Russian Olympic Committee, especially her controversial coach Eteri Tutberidze. Russian participation under the reuse of an “Olympic Committee” was itself enormously questionable.
Regardless, Valieva will be forever linked to this Olympic controversy, and should she skate competitively in the future any victories will always be viewed through a suspicious lens. In this case, an Olympic medal was simply not worth having.
The Silver Medal — Associate Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett
When Justice Antonin Scalia died in early 2016, President Barack Obama nominated highly regarded federal Judge Merrick Garland to replace him on the high court. However, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even allow a confirmation hearing on the Garland nomination arguing that during an election year Supreme Court nominations should await the results of the pending presidential contest. In support of his position, McConnell cited one dubious precedent after another, none of them even partially persuasive.
Nonetheless, when Donald Trump became president in 2016, the McConnell gambit paid off. Once president, Trump quickly nominated conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat and he was quickly confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
On September 18, 2020, highly respected Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died after a long illness. Even though the 2020 election was in full swing with election day itself a mere six weeks away — and some early ballots already cast, Trump and McConnell acted quickly despite their antics and artificial arguments regarding Garland in 2016. Trump did his part and quickly nominated federal appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill Ginsburg’s seat.
There can be little doubt that Coney Barrett was qualified for a seat on the court. Among other endorsements, she received the highest recommendation from the American Bar Association — as had Merrick Garland. And she had an impressive legal resume — as did Merrick Garland. Nonetheless, the very fact that she was nominated by a president who had been impeached twice, whose regard for the law was demonstrably low — at least as it applied to him, and would go on to instigate an attempted overthrow of the 2020 election, will forever stain Coney Barrett’s judicial reputation. The hypocrisy of the entire Coney Barrett nomination and confirmation was overwhelmingly on public display, and she willingly played her part.
Although Trump appointed two other justices to the court, Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the fact that Coney Barrett’s confirmation was rushed through the Senate while the memory of the de-railing of Garland’s nomination was still relatively fresh will remain her enduring legacy.
Coney Barrett should have withdrawn her nomination when the extreme politics of the moment emerged. I had suggested as much at the time. But she did not. The result will be that her future history on the court will always be marked with the asterisk regarding the pervasive partisanship of her nomination and confirmation. She will always be the interloper who improperly took the seat of a legendary jurist. Her presence will remain a worrisome reminder of the court’s continuing descent into political partisanship, a descent that began with the Gore v. Bush decision in 2000, and was recently accelerated with the revelation that Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni, had encouraged Trump through his chief of staff to dispute — and seemingly disrupt — the presidential election process. Coney Barrett’s reputation will be further diminished, along with that of the court itself, if she plays a role in over-turning the Roe v. Wade precedent, as seems likely.
The late Justice John Paul Stevens noted after Gore v. Bush that,
“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is pellucidly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of ‘law’.”
Stevens had hoped that the passage of time would allow the court’s reputation to recover, to once more become an institution at least conceptually seen as distant from political intrigue and interference. The Coney Barrett experience suggests that day remains in the future, perhaps far in the future.
The Gold Medal — Russian President Vladimir Putin
The runaway gold medalist of the “not worth the cost” contest is Vladimir Putin, the current Russian dictator who presumptuously carries the title “President.” Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine, launched quickly after the end of the Beijing Olympics and the meltdown of bronze medal winner Alieva, is likely the modern era ultimate in over-playing one’s hand. It will certainly rival the equally foolish decision of Adolph Hitler to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, placing Germany in a two-front war with determined adversaries on both flanks. Hitler, at least, had a capable army that was well-led, but fell prey to an ever-widening front and the onset of the brutal Russian winter.
Putin evidently calculated that Ukrainians would not resist his attack, that their military was weak, and that their political leadership was inept. As events have shown: wrong, wrong, and wrong. The Ukrainians have resisted fiercely and courageously; their military has shown itself to be tough and resourceful; and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has found himself being compared to Winston Churchill during “England’s dark days and darker nights.”
Putin either conducted no serious cost-benefit analysis, took comfort in his own delusions, rejected or ignored cautionary advice, or is simply — as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has described him — “reactionary, revisionist, and reckless.”
Putin evidently sought to eventually have his portrait hung in the Kremlin next to Tsar Peter the Great, or perhaps next to some of the Soviet-era leaders he evidently learned to admire. After all, his formal education included the KGB’s professional schools. But any future portrait of Putin will reside instead in the hall of monstrous tyrants whose pursuit of grandeur became a grand failure.
Interestingly, two of my winners are Russian, a country of enormous potential that continues to develop political structures and leaders that work to its detriment. The United States has always avoided such outcomes, but recent events have shown we are far from immune from making major blunders– in our international efforts and our national politics. We ourselves need to do better. Our odds are better than Russia’s, but not as great as they should be — and historically have been. Our institutions, procedures, and political norms should be major advantages. But they have been under attack and badly hemorrhaged during the past two decades. The circumstances of the ascent of Justice Coney Barrett demonstrate that. Some things are not worth having, but a functioning democracy is.