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Archive for February, 2011

As an unfortunate resident of America’s largest sports market, I am now victim to the New York sports noise machine. I am also subject to Knicks and Nets basketball. Oof.

The Knicks’ victory at the Miami Heat yesterday seems to have been a “statement win” for the newly-constructed Knicks. Carmelo Anthony scored big and this is the moment when the team is beginning to work as a team. (Bill Simmons notes that anyone who thinks Carmelo is not that good is really really stupid… but let’s reserve my hatred for The Sports Guy for another day.) But the Knicks also just lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the hands-down worst team in basketball with the same lineup!

So, which game tells us more about the Knicks’ “contender” status — the big win? Or the humiliating loss?

Luckily for us, Basketball-Reference’s Neil Paine has already crunched the numbers!

  • The team with the better regular-season WPct vs. top-5 teams won the series 65.9% of the time.
  • The team with the better regular-season WPct vs. top-10 teams won the series 71.8% of the time.
  • The team with the better WPct vs. teams outside the top 10 won the series 73.2% of the time.

Basically, one regular season game doesn’t matter much more than another, but winning against elite teams in the regular season doesn’t mean squat when it comes to the playoffs.

Just another way in which perception (beating good teams now means higher probability of beating good teams in the future) doesn’t always line up with reality.

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Tyler Cowen put up a cute little repost of a Nick Rowe piece about New Keynesians and unions, but here’s the gist:

Cartels, like labour unions, just make the problem worse. Because by joining together with similar sellers into a group, the demand curve facing the group is  steeper than the demand curve facing the individual, since members of the group no longer compete against each other for buyers. So there is an even bigger difference between the downward-sloping trade-off facing the group of sellers and the horizontal trade-off facing us all.

Unions are bad for the very same reason that recessions are bad.

Cowen laments that Keynesian economists aren’t on board with trashing unions along with other cartels. (Of course, he knows the politics of it all, but let’s skip it.) The nature of political economy is such that there will always be cartels. There are telecom cartels, financial cartels, defense industry cartels, oil cartels, resource cartels, doctor cartels, and every manner of corporate cartel (see: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). To be fair, the corporations that make up these cartels are often in competition, but when it comes time to look at the federal budget, they band together quite readily to produce exactly the demand curve problem that faces unions.

Yes, rent-seeking behavior is bad and we should try to curtail it. But as long as there are cartels, isn’t it worth considering which ones we want to support? Notice that the ones who have successfully gotten federal support in the last ten years are corporate or high-paying (the American Medical Association in health care reform, telecoms in faux Net Neutrality, defense industry in well, the entire Pentagon budget). Notice that unions have gotten jack squat (not even the EFCA!).

If there will always be cartels, can’t we have one set just for the non-top-1%? Just once? Just maybe?

The saddest part about the Wisconsin battle is that although the public unions will probably win in the short run, public unions are just as doomed as their private counterparts. After they’re gone, who will be left to even the playing field?

Cowen’s instinct about cartels is right, but unless I see the government using its antitrust powers to break up Comcast or AT&T (or break the AMA for that matter), I think the unionized public employee cartel is probably the least of our problems.

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The recent spate of confidence-boosting pop songs is nothing new. Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” both became megahits (and frequent caterwauling victims on American Idol — the truest measure of pop song ubiquity). Yet, the current wave of pep-talk songs differs from its past versions in both style and sheer number. Currently on the Billboard charts, the #1, #5, #6 and #8 songs are all of the “inspirational” variety, with a smattering following after. Pop music works in waves, so this is not wholly surprising (as when the Top 10 were dominated purely by songs featuring T-Pain, or more recently, Pitbull). Here, though, the earnestness of the songs and their simultaneous rise in the wake of bullying news stories seems to suggest a broader force at work. One wonders why we need pop stars to tell us to feel good about ourselves anyways.

One notable change in this generation of confidence-boosters is the change in tempo. There are no ballads in this set, taking their hints from Britney Spears’ “Stronger” rather than the traditional ballad set — more “Rocky” montage than “Chariots of Fire.” We’ll dance/montage our way to feeling better! In that vein, let’s start with the execrable “Firework” by Katy Perry. Lord, it’s awful:

Starting with a painfully bad opening line, “Do you ever feel // like a plastic bag,” the song reflects a perfect exercise in banality. Nothing in the song distinguishes itself, from the Coldplay-cribbing string section to the blandest dance beat this side of Justin Bieber. This, however, is the song’s strength for the listener: this could theoretically be about me, since this could theoretically be anyone! Before you know it, your chest too could have an attached firework bra! (What is it with Katy Perry and novelty bras?) Pop songs are made to be universal, but at some point, the generality of “have higher self-esteem by being yourself!” hurts rather than helps. It only reinforces the idea that specialness is everywhere and therefore, generic. If after all your beautiful, colorful explosions, all anyone has to say is “Ah, ah, ah,” how great a show are you?

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Today’s David Brooks piece (I know, I shouldn’t give him the pageviews, but it’s worth reading for its anthropological value) could not have painted a better picture of the problems that notions of fairness have on societal outcomes. In his piece, Brooks basically says that unions should suck it up and take the crushing blow, because everyone should make way for the “new unwritten constitution” of the outsourced, contracted state. (This worked really well for public utilities and airlines in the 80s! Just ask British Rail!) (Also, did he really call Scott Walker a new founding father?!)

In any case, the problem with fairness is that it often does not line up with the most efficient outcome. Consider the ultimatum game — a basic two-person behavioral economics game. Person A makes a proposal of how to divide 10 dollars among A and B. If B accepts the proposal, they both get the money from the proposal. If B rejects the proposal, they both walk away with nothing. If people were rational, then B would accept the offer every time, even if A only offers one penny. But in lab and field experiments, B rejects the offer if it’s below a certain threshold.

On the one hand, this is a positive quirk of human behavior. After all, people are not merely selfish; they also value fairness. Yet, there is a darker side to this. If we perceive that someone is getting a free ride, our instinct is to punish them, even at risk to ourselves. This works well as far as it goes to eliminate free riders that burden the system, but taken too far, it causes highly inefficient outcomes.

For example, if Brooks intends to “make everybody hurt” by laying off state workers, the economic downturn will be more pronounced. Fewer workers means lower consumer spending. Teachers have long-term value, so laying them off in droves hurts long-term prospects. State bureaucrats — the most shit-on of all state workers — need to actually run the state! (One doesn’t expect Gov. Walker to do the heavy lifting.)

The other unfortunate quirk of the human brain is that we miss bias the in-your-face information (true or not) in front of us at the expense of the boring facts. Brooks intends for everyone to hurt. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that poorer, less-well-educated workers are already hurting the most:

Unemployment Rate and Education Level (from CalculatedRisk)

The cops and firefighters, the clerks and secretaries, the construction workers and nurse’s assistants — they’re already feeling the hurt. Making them feel it more may make David Brooks feel better, but it won’t solve the budget problem. The more people that are unemployed, the more unemployment benefits to pay, the less taxes are being paid. How is this helping exactly? This is the same “fairness” instinct that made the erroneous “welfare queen” stories so persistent. Brooks stands for efficiency, except when he can see people who might not be equally suffering, no matter the cost to the broader economy.

Oh, by the way, there is one group that isn’t hurting that David Brooks would never, ever punish: the super-rich. Luxury goods are booming, corporate profits are up!

But punish the freeloaders working off of state coffers. They’re the ones who have to hurt now.

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In my previous post on Scientology, I lauded Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article but ended with my misgivings about labeling Scientology – or anything else – a cult. I also said that I would save those thoughts for another blog post. Well, someone asked me for those thoughts, so here they are. I suspect that this blog post will be a bit more personal and perhaps rambling than most others I write, but I am doing this as much for myself as for anyone.

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After reading the Lawrence Wright Scientology article that Linus posted, I was struck by Paul Haggis describing his growing realization that his church had been a scam. More troubling were the descriptions of people who had joined Scientology and given up everything — family, friends, job — that didn’t belong to the organization itself. Still, though, I found the pile-on of Scientology more than a little unfair (similar to Linus’s misgivings about labeling Scientology a “cult”), and I couldn’t figure out why until I read this recent NYTimes piece about the Catholic Church in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal in Ireland.

Unsurprisingly, the sex-abuse scandal has disturbed a country whose very existence is closely related to the Church. Most schools and many hospitals are Church-run, even though they are publicly funded. But what struck me about the story was how similar to Scientology the responses were from Church leaders.

When these horrific events were exposed, the Pope, instead of questioning any existing dogma, sent out a quite insulting official letter, scolding the whole nation of Ireland for embracing secularization and feminism, without proposing any mechanisms for removing and prosecuting priests. (As we know, no priest ever molested or abused any children before feminism. FACT.) This is the same denialist credo as the Scientologists, with total disregard for the truth or accountability. When confronted with the fact that the original Hubbard texts have negative references to homosexuality, the Scientology spokesman responds that the words must have been the insertion of some random bigot trying to undermine Scientology. It’s never the Church’s fault, in either case.

The saddest part, though, is the plight of those who want to walk away from the Church. In Scientology, many have given up their past lives and have surrounded themselves only with other Scientologists. In Ireland, the Church’s pervasive nature means that it’s difficult to leave, particularly after you’ve invested so much of your life (and your savings) in the Church:

A televised panel discussion on the abuse crisis last summer ended with a reporter asking a woman who was voicing her anger if she was ready to leave the Catholic Church. She paused, as if befuddled, then said, “Where would I go?”

In my mind, she sounded exactly like the troubled souls who latch onto Scientology, only to find no way out. As Haggis puts it, “They leave, they’re ashamed of what they’ve done, they’ve got no money, no job history, they’re lost, they just disappear.”

The Catholic Church has now gone out of its way to remove the last canonically-accepted way of formal defection from the Church. Now, walking away means essentially walking straight towards eternal damnation. Now, the Church hierarchy doesn’t have “blow drills” in which priests hunt down and drag back former members, but why would they have to? They’ve been entangled in every aspect of Irish public life for hundreds of years.

Matt Lauer has no problem going after Tom Cruise for his Scientology claptrap, but I doubt he could get away with going after an archbishop or cardinal, let alone the Pope.

When any organization has limitless power over its adherents and no accountability to anyone but God, bad things will happen. To return to Linus’ point about labeling something a “cult,” then, maybe the only difference between a cult and a religion is a couple thousand years of success.

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Sometimes the best film doesn’t win the Oscar, but the winner is still quite good (examples: From 1994, Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite films, but the winner, Forrest Gump, is still a really good movie. Alternatively, in 1977 Star Wars lost, but Annie Hall is Woodie Allen’s best ).

Other times, the winner isn’t a great film, but there were no other candidates that stand out as particularly deserving (example: in 1995, Braveheart isn’t very good, but the other nominees were Apollo 13, Babe, Il Postino, and Sense and Sensibilities.)

So after going back through time, here are my top 5 examples of clearly worse movies beating better ones.

1998

Actually won: Shakespeare in Love

Should have won: Saving Private Ryan

2005

Actually won: Crash

Should have won: Brokeback Mountain

1996

Actually won: The English Patient

Should have won: Fargo

1941

Actually won: How Green Was My Valley

Should have won: Citizen Kane

1980

Actually won: Ordinary People

Should have won: Raging Bull

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