Sunday, September 28, 2014

Derek Jeter: A Class Act

Derek Jeter's victory lap ended today. After singling against the Boston Red Sox, he was lifted for a pinch runner, guaranteeing that he will go out with a hit in his final at bat. It doesn't get much better than that unless he hit a home run in his final at bat (like Ted Williams). Still, in his final at bat at Yankee Stadium, he singled to drive in the winning run, and he hit a home run for his 3,000 hit, so he has plenty to smile for.

Jeter's accomplishments on the field only partly explain the respect and adoration he engenders, however. He is, after all, neither the greatest shortstop nor the greatest hitter of all time. Rather the fanfare that has followed Jeter in his final season is because in addition to being a very good player, he has also been a class act both on and off the field. Unlike some professional athletes he didn't spend his career boasting about his greatness or belittling his opponents; instead, he treated his teammates and opponents with respect and didn't complain when the breaks didn't go his way. And his performance off the field has been even more remarkable ("With His Words and Deeds, Derek Jeter Never Entered Foul Territory"):
In 20 years of living onstage in New York City, the so-called media capital of the world, Derek Jeter has never played ball. He has never been caught in a compromising position. He has never embarrassed himself. After a long shift at the ballpark, he has never been known to ooze into one of those establishments that tabloids call jiggle joints, or to stumble out of some meatpacking-district hot spot after too much Veuve Clicquot. 
This isn’t to say that Jeter hasn’t gone out at night, or that he hasn’t been photographed holding a beer, or that he didn’t glower once at Rodriguez after a botched infield pop-up. But he will retire with his honor and privacy intact, leaving the world to know only that he was raised right by his parents, has dated models and movie stars, and, most revealingly, kept telling himself not to cry as he played his final game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night.
It's too bad that more professional athletes don't follow Jeter's example (can you say Alex Rodriguez? Terrell Owens?). Then they too might be worshipped in their final season. Instead, most will go out with a whimper with very few people caring (or noticing) they're no longer playing.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Price Discrimination or Fitness Apartheid?

In New York City there are a number of rent-stabilized apartment buildings that are slowly transitioning to market-based ones. Tenants who moved in while a building was rent-stabilized continue to pay the rent-stabilized rate, but when they move out or die, the owner can charge new tenants the market rate. Stonehenge Village is one of those apartments. Old tenants pay about $1,000/month in rent, while new ones pay $3-4,000. To entice people to rent an apartment, Stonehenge Village built a nice fitness center on the first floor that tenants get to use for free. Except there's a catch. Only the new tenants get to use it. Tenants paying the rent-subsidized rate do not. There owners have posted a sign outside the gym door just in case there was any doubt:
Please do NOT hold the doors open for other residents. ALL Residents MUST use their keycard to gain entry. Please make sure that the door fully closes behind you. Thank you and Enjoy.
Not surprisingly, the older tenants are crying foul and calling what Stonehenge Villa's owners are doing, "Fitness Apartheid." Some economists might call it, "price discrimination." As one economist notes, the price of the gym is included in the extra rent paid by the new tenants, so it's not really free (economists have a saying -- there aint' no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL). However, the owners probably would've been a lot smarter if they would have broken the rent down between rent for the apartment (e.g., $3,950 per month) and rent for the gym (e.g., $50 per month), an then offered the tenants paying the rent subsidized rate gym memberships at $50 per month.

But they didn't and now they have a mess on their hands, not to mention the attention of the folks at Freaknomics, which features the Stonehenge Village controversy in its latex podcast ("Fitness Apartheid"). It can be downloaded from iTunes or the Freakonomics website. The podcast also looks at a 33-story residential building being built in New York that will have 219 luxury condos and 55 affordable-housing units that will have a separate entrance for the affordable-housing tenants, an entrance that is is now being called the "poor door." It's hard to believe this kind of stuff still happens.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Clayton Kershaw for MVP

Although it's difficult as a Giants fan, for the second year in a row I'm nominating a Dodger for National League MVP: Clayton Kershaw (last year, I nominated Yasiel Puig - "Puig for MVP"). I don't typically think pitchers should win MVP awards because they only play in a quarter to a fifth of a team's games, but there are no positions players on playoff bound teams that have had exceptional years. The previous two winners, Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutcheon and the Giants' Buster Posey, have had good years (both are hitting over .300), but not MVP-type years. One could make a case for Puig, but his numbers aren't any better than McCutcheon's or Posey's, and he's still something of an adventure in the outfield (although his arm is amazing).

No, it has to be Kershaw. He's had a magical year. Last night's performance against the Giants was vintage (much to my chagrin). He wasn't as sharp as he could be--he gave up several hits and committed a balk--but he made a dazzling behind the back grab on a grounder that would've have driven in a run, and he hit a triple to drive in what at the time was the tying run. He deserves it. He's the guy. Plus, the reason why he wears #22 is because growing up his favorite player was San Francisco Giant, Will Clark, so he can't be all bad...

PS: Here's a link to the Wikipedia article on him: Clayton Kershaw

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why Strict Churches Thrive

Why would anyone join a “high-cost” church when plenty of “low-cost” alternatives are available? That is, why would someone join a church that requires them to spend 15-20 hours per week at church, limit who you can befriend and marry, prohibits you from drinking coffee or beer, and bars you from some forms of secular entertainment (e.g., Halloween)? This is the puzzle that the economist Larry Iannaccone sought to solve in his oft-cited article, "Why Strict Churches Are Strong." Iannaccone's answer was that strictness increases church strength in that it raises overall levels of commitment by screening out the partially committed, which increases the average rate of participation, and consequently, raises the overall benefits of belonging.

The important thing to realize is that religion is a collective good that people produce together. The satisfaction I derive from worship doesn’t depend just on how much I contribute but also on how much other people contribute. If only half of the congregation participates (e.g., the singing of hymns), then the collective product will not be as good as it would be if everyone participated. Put simply, churches that don't demand a lot typically don't give a lot in return.

Larry's sometime collaborator, Rod Stark, drew on this insight in his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Rise of Christianity. He notes that the early Church placed heavy demands on members, to the point of being willing to die for their faith (i.e., martyr). And while the martyrdom of Christians was sporadic and relatively minimal, people who joined the early Church were expected to fully participate in its ministries and worship, which in turn generated many "this-worldly" rewards to church members (p. 188):
Because the church asked much of its members, it was thereby possessed of the resources to give much. For example, because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, many of them received such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, many of them received such nursing. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn were loved. And if Christians were required to observe a far more restrictive moral code than that observed by pagans, Christians – especially women – enjoyed a far more secure family life.”
Thus, although membership in the early Christian Church was costly (e.g., martyrdom and other forms of sacrifice), it was still a bargain.

Iannaccone's theory has been applied to a number of different settings, including secular ones (e.g., the environmental movement). It is also the subject of the most recent Research on Religion podcast ("Larry Iannaccone on Sacrifice, Stigma, and the Economics of Religion"), which I highly recommend. It is available at iTunes and at the Research on Religion website. I also provide a more in-depth discussion of this theory at: "Why Evangelical Churches Thrive (or, Why Strict Churches Are Strong)"

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Young Athletes, Overuse, and Torn ACLs

I've written several times in the past about the dangers of kids playing a single sport year round:
  1. Want to Double Your Kids' Chance of Injury? Have Them Specialize in a Single Sport
  2. Overuse, Not Curveballs, Hurts Young Arms
  3. Kids and Sports: How Young is too Young? How Much is too Much?
  4. Aristotle, Virtue & the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic
I don't want to beat a dead horse, but this week in the San Jose Mercury News ("Too Much, Too Soon?") there is a story about a young boy who tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) when he was 7! And he isn't unusual. More and more young kids are suffering injuries that a few years ago didn't strike young athletes until they were 16 or 17. And when I was a young, torn ACLs (and similar injuries) were unheard of. They only happened to college and professional athletes.

What's happened? Increased specialization and year-round sports. Young athletes are increasingly specializing in a single sport and then playing it year round. And while specialization can sharpen skills, it also leads to more repetition, more strain, and more injuries. Muscles and joints need breaks. They need time to repair. But when kids play year round, their bodies aren't given a chance. Compare the current situation to when I played Little League. I probably threw over 100 pitches in every game I pitched as an 11 and 12 year old, but I never had any arm problems. Why? Because I didn't play baseball from August to March. Instead, I played other sports, like football, basketball, wrestling, and track.

What can be done? Youth sports organizations like Little League Baseball are doing what they can. Little League has implemented pitch counts (I'd only be able to throw 85 pitches a game now) and mandatory rest periods between appearances, but that only addresses the symptom not the disease. In the end I think it will have to be parents who step up and insist that there kids do not play the same sport year round. I don't think coaches of club sports teams will because most (not all) don't have their players' best interests at heart. They are responding to different incentives. They want to win now, which means they want the best players and are reluctant to take a few months off (another team might pick them up, after all!). Thus, they come up with reasons why your son, who throws 90+ miles an hour, or your daughter, who is 6'5" and strikes the volleyball at 45 mph, has to play in that tournament in Modesto next week although they are already slam-dunk Division I recruits. "College scouts will be there; it's a great opportunity." 

No, it's not.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MLB's Ridiculous Obsession With Closers

What is up with the MLB's obsession with closers? Every team thinks they need one, but they don't. If a starting pitcher throws 8 great innings, why take him out? Although there's no rule that says you have to, managers act as if there is.

This probably cost the Oakland A's a win tonight. Jeff Samardzija threw 8 innings of 4-hit, shut-out ball, and with the A's leading 1-0, he was replaced in the 9th by the A's current closer, Sean Doolittle, who promptly gave up 5 runs in 1/3 of an inning pitched, and the A's lost 6-1. To be sure, Samardzija had thrown 116 pitches, but surely the A's could've at least allowed him to start the 9th, and then if he ran into trouble, they could bring in their closer.

But no. The A's are just as susceptible to the pressure of cultural norms as are other organizations. As the sociologist Mark Chaves notes in an entirely different context (Ordaining Women, pp. 32-33):
When an organizational practice or structure becomes commonly understood as a defining feature of a “legitimate” organization of a certain type, organizational elites feel pressure to institute that practice or structure. If there is a cultural norm that says, “In order for an organization to be a good organization, it must have characteristic X,” organizations feel pressure to institute characteristic X.
In professional baseball, having a closer is one of those institutional characteristics that organizations feel pressure to institute. However, as I noted back in March, most closers aren't as good as future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera ("Not Everyone Can Throw Like Mariano Rivera"), and the failure to realize this, probably cost the A's the game tonight and may have jeopardized their chances of making the playoffs. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Internet and Creative Destruction

Many years ago one of my aunts lamented how the budding computer industry was causing a lot of occupations to become obsolete, and she thought this a bad thing because people were losing their jobs. I remember replying, "Well, with that logic, we'd still be delivering mail using Pony Express." We now know, of course, that the jobs created by the computer industry have far exceeded those that it eliminated, but as my aunt's lament accurately reflected, it wasn't a painless process. Real people lost their jobs, which is why government programs need to be in place to help those who are unable to translate their skills to new industries.

Economists often use the term, creative destruction, which was first coined by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, in order to refer to how new technologies replace old ones and in the process create new jobs while eliminating others. It's destructive in the sense that jobs are lost and industries fade away, but it's creative in that it ultimately creates more jobs than before and is therefore better for the overall health of the economy in the long run. As the economist Charles Wheelan puts it (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, p. 47):
We look back and speak admiringly of technological breakthroughs like the steam engine, the spinning wheel, and the telephone. But those advances made it a bad time to be, respectively, a blacksmith, a seamstress, or a telegraph operator. Creative destruction is not just something that might happen in a market economy. It is something that must happen. At the beginning of the the twentieth century, half of all Americans worked in farming or ranching. Now that figure is about one in a hundred and still falling... Note that two important things have not happened: (1) We have not starved to death; and (2) we do not have a 49 percent unemployment rate. Instead, America farmers have become so productive that we need far fewer of them to feed ourselves. The individuals who would have been farming ninety years ago are no fixing our cars, designing computer games, playing professional football, etc. Just imagine our collective loss of utility if Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, and Oprah Winfrey were corn farmers.
Creative destruction is the subtext of a recent Freakonomics podcast, "Regulate This!," which explores the "sharing economy," namely companies such as Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Eatwyth that facilitate peer-to-peer transactions through the Internet. Such companies have been growing rapidly, but they are getting into more and more fights with government regulators, who are seen by many as protecting old and increasingly obsolete industries. The podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or you can listen to it at the Freakonomics website ("Regulate This!") where the audio transcript is also available.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Religious Freedom and Saudi Arabia

As I've noted several times, Brian Grim and Roger Finke ("Religious Freedom and Religious Violence","Religious Freedom and Human Rights") have empirically documented that religious freedom is a good thing. It is inversely associated with violence and positively correlated with a whole host of other goods, such as women's rights, civil liberties, and economic development.

Now consider the plight of Raif Badawi, blogger and the founding editor of the liberal internet forum, Free Saudi Liberals. He is set to serve ten years in jail, followed by a ten-year travel ban, face 1,000 lashes, fined around $266,000, and banned from ever working in the media again. His crime? Insulting Islam.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is Richard Dawkins the new Auguste Comte?

When the story of sociology is told, people often start with August Comte (1798-1857), who argued on behalf of the study of society using scientific methods. Early in his career he attracted quite a following and was well respected, but in his later years he became somewhat full of himself. Although he was critical of religion for its superstitious beliefs, later in his career he sought to establish a secular universal religion of humanity and declared himself to be its high priest. His friend, John Stuart Mill, sometimes referred to the "good" Comte (the author of the Course in Positive Philosophy) and the "bad Comte" (the author of the secular-religious system).

I don't known if the biologist Richard Dawkins would consider himself the high priest of atheism, but he evidently is getting increasingly full of himself. His website encourages people to join the "Reason Circle" where a donation of $85 per month ($1,020 per year) allows them to get discounts on his merchandise and the chance to meet someone from his foundation (but not Dawkins). In order to meet Dawkins, you need to donate $5,000, and if you'd like to have a private breakfast or lunch with him (I guess dinner's not on the table), you need to fork over $100,000. What a deal.

Note: Source for the portion of this post that concerns Richard Dawkins: The Christian Century, September 17th issue, p. 9.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Game Theory and Aldon Smith

49er fans woke up Sunday to learn that one of their defensive ends, Ray McDonald, was arrested for domestic violence early Sunday morning. Shortly thereafter, San Jose Mercury News columnist, Tim Kawakami, argued that this was ultimately the 49ers fault because "they have no standard of behavior as long as the player can produce for them in the times when he is not otherwise banished from the league, and what we're seeing is  bunch of players who have absolutely gotten the unspoken message and continue to do whatever the hell they want."

Kawakami has a point, but he fails to recognize that NFL teams have absolutely no incentive punishing bad behavior (presumably by releasing players), and until the incentives change, they will continue to tolerate such behavior whether they want to or not (although as I noted a couple of weeks ago, NFL players behave better compared to other men in the same age range -- "NFL Players Aren't As Bad As You Probably Think").

To illustrate why, let us turn to the insights that game theory offer us. Economists, political scientists, sociologists, and other social scientists use game theory in order to model real-world situations that involve cooperation between two or more parties. The best known game is probably the "prisoner's dilemma," which shows how two "rational" individuals might not cooperate, even if it's in their best interests to do so. Imagine a situation in which the police have two people in prison, but they don't have enough evidence to convict them on the principal charge. They do, however, have enough to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement and cannot communicate with the other. The police decide to offer each prisoner the opportunity to get off scot free if they testify against the other.

The various outcomes are captured in the matrix above, which lists the "payoffs" to each of the prisoners (the payoffs for Prisoner #1 appear below each of the diagonals, while the payoffs for Prisoner #2 appear above the diagonals). The best option is for both prisoners to keep their mouth shut. If they do, they will only serve 1 year in prison on the lesser charge (note the "1s" above and below the diagonal in the upper left cell of the table below). However, the rational thing for each individual prisoner to do is to betray the other. For example, if Prisoner #1 betrays Prisoner #2 and the latter remains silent, then he'll go free, while Prisoner #2 will serve 3 years in prison. The opposite is true if Prisoner #2 betrays Prisoner #1 and Prisoner #1 remains silent. However, since both prisoners are "rational," they'll both betray the other, and both will serve prison terms of 2 years.

Now consider what I'm calling the Aldon Smith dilemma or game (see the payoff matrix below). As 49er (and NFL) fans know, the 49ers' defensive end, Aldon Smith, is a talented but troubled young man, who has had several brushes with the law, which (finally) earned him a 9-game suspension from the NFL. Many (e.g., Tim Kawakami) have repeatedly called on the 49ers to get tough with Smith, to release him, but currently there's no incentive to do so. To illustrate, consider the following payoff matrix. Assume that having Smith on one's team brings expected benefits (e.g., wins) of "8" and costs (e.g., salary, disruptive behavior) of "4" for a net gain of "4". Thus, if the 49ers release him, the only way they don't "lose" is if no other team (e.g., the Seahawks) signs him. However, if another team picks him up, then the Niners pay the price. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to keep him regardless of what other teams plan to do.

Of course, the Niners aren't alone. No individual NFL team has the incentive to release talented but troubled players as long as their rivals will sign them. In fact, unless it becomes more costly to keep such players than to release them (e.g., "cost" of paying a player who spends half of every season suspended), teams will not be willing to do so. To illustrate assume that the costs of keeping Smith are increased from "4" to "10;" this produces a new payoff matrix (see below), which shows that if neither the 49ers nor the Seahawks sign Smith, then neither one comes out ahead. More importantly, it shows that there's no incentive for either team to sign Smith because the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits (-2). Thus, the rational thing for both teams is not to sign him.

Incentives seldom change by themselves, however, which is why it's up to the NFL to do so. In short, they have to make the costs of keeping players such as Smith (and Ray McDonald) greater than expected benefits. And that is exactly what it is (finally) starting to do. By suspending players for big chunks of a season (and for repeated offenders, for life), the NFL is changing the incentive structure for teams like the NFL, which should allow them to start making choices with which everyone, including Tim Kawakami, is more comfortable.