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July - September 2012

Incentives matter ... even in badminton

dem bones

  Nixon v. Reagan v. Romney

Friday, August 3, 2012

   Incentives matter ... even in badminton -  This week scandal rocks the Olympics as we learn that certain doubles teams in women's badminton purposely sought to lose their matches.  The horror!  But, wait.  Let's think about this one for more than just a knee-jerk minute.  These players weren't trying to lose out on the gold, silver and bronze metals, were they?  Of course not.  They were, in fact, employing a strategy that they felt best gave them a chance to win these coveted symbols of excellence.  They weren't trying to throw a game for money, like you sometimes hear about in boxing, baseball or even football.  They were, in fact, employing a perfectly sound strategy to maximize their chances of winning the gold medal.  And for that, they were disqualified.

     Why?  Well, the rules for the competition were such that good teams early on would get matched up against each other in elimination matches in the middle rounds, threatening their ability to advance to the final round.  Consequently, players tried to lose early matches so that they would have a better chance to advance through these middle rounds.  Their incentives seem to be exactly what we'd like them to be - try to win the gold.  But, the organizers have set up the rules so that player strategy is at odds with what we would like to see - hard fought games every step of the way.

     Notice how this doesn't happen, for example, in the NCAA basketball tournament.  There, teams are ranked according to their play over the season.  The best teams are seeded in the tournament so they they are most likely to meet each other in the finals.  Their incentives are aligned with our desire to see good play throughout the tourney.  Indeed, recall a few years ago when fans dreaded the onset of the "4-corner" offense, when players of the leading team would try to stall out the game, hoping time would run out while they were still ahead.  Were they cheating?  Of course not.  But, the rules changed in response to fan dissatisfaction, and the shot clock was introduced to prohibit the extreme of this kind of play.  [Even so, a team that is leading in the final minutes will still employ this tactic using up precious seconds or getting fouled and likely scoring free throws to maintain their lead.]

     Or, consider perhaps the greatest football game ever played - Super Bowl XXXII.  Between Green Bay and Denver.  OK, as an ardent Broncos fan, I admit to a boatload of bias here!  In the closing minutes of that game, Denver was driving to the goal line.  With only 1:47 left in the game, and the Broncos with a first-and-goal on the one yard line, Green Bay put up token opposition, letting Terrell Davis pretty much walk into the end zone.  The Packers' coach felt that they had a better chance of winning by letting Denver score and then come back and score themselves.  If, instead, they had put up a stiff defense, they would likely have run out of time, Denver would have scored a field goal and still won the game.

     OK, the bottom line here is that incentives matter.  In the case of the badminton teams, they were using a strategy to try and win the gold medal.  To make a rule that states, "You must try hard" means that incentives are poorly aligned.  But, badminton is not a complicated game.  Extend this problem to how government functions to regulate the economy.  Do you think that they ever get incentives properly aligned?  [Hint - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy up mortgages, bundle them together and sell off MBS - mortgage-backed securities.]

Saturday, August 11, 2012

   dem bones -  An announcement appeared in the local paper from the Smithsonian Institution about the repatriation of human remains to the nearby Hopi Tribe.  [Here it is in the publication Indian Country Today.]  This raises an interesting issue - is it the case that our ethnicity determines who owns our bones after we die?  That seems rather farfetched.  And it begs the question of which ethnicity should count - I descend from English, Scottish, French, Welsh and even Native American blood lines.  Who owns my bones?  I would say that it would be whoever wants to maintain them, or to whoever has acquired the appropriate property rights (to the ground, I suppose).  How else could it be?  If native Americans want to maintain ongoing custody, and the tribal members are fine with that, then so be it.  But, as you move further away in time, a break in the chain of custody would seem to invalidate any claim to "ownership."

     And, that is pretty much what we have here.  The Smithsonian has determined that the "human remains ... have been found by a preponderance of evidence to be culturally affiliated with the Hopi Tribe."  The remains come from the nearby Elden Pueblo site and were gathered up in 1925.  They date back about a thousand years.  And, they are "owned" by the Hopi Tribe?  I can't imagine that is the case.  Maybe these people were outcasts from the tribe.  Or, maybe they despised the tribal leaders.  We have no clue.  Or, maybe they were cannibals.  Or, maybe not.  But, apparently, your DNA will determine the fate of your remains.

     Consider an extension of this case involving remains from Canyon de Chelly, in northeastern Arizona and within the Navajo Reservation.  The Navajo tribal government seeks to obtain the remains found here, even though they mostly predate the arrival of the Navajo.  Well, isn't this the slippery slope that we started down with all this?  The further in time apart are the human remains from our current time, the less clear it seems to me that they "belong" to anyone.  If scientists find them and want to study them, then that is fine with me.  But, it also is fine with me if they decide to bestow these remains to someone else, be it a museum or a tribe.

     Consider the even more bizarre case of the Kennewick Man, pictured above.  These remains were found in an eroding riverbank in 1996, and despite being dated to between 5,000 and 10,000 years old, are being claimed by a host of native tribes.  The ensuing legal wrangling pitted the scientific community against these various tribes.  The court eventually ruled in favor of the scientists, but I doubt that this case is really resolved.  [Indeed, the reconstruction shown above leads me to think that the bones should be returned to Ben Kingsley for disposition!]

     The law as it currently exists means, simply, that the state owns your remains.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate indignity.  The libertarian homesteading principle would seem to apply as I have outlined above.  And, if not, then let's take this repatriation nonsense to its logical conclusion.  If you accept the theory that native Americans arrived here from Asia via a land bridge to Alaska, then the bones belong to some Asian communities.  And, if you accept that humans originated in Africa, then I suppose that the bones must go back there somewhere - perhaps the Great Rift Valley in Kenya.  [Like our president, in the final analysis, it seems that we are all Kenyans!]

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

   Nixon v. Reagan v. Romney -  As the election fast approaches I am starting to think about whether a President Romney would more closely resemble President Nixon or President Reagan.  The former would be mostly awful while the latter would at least hold out the hope for a path to a better future.  And, here is my reasoning.

     President Nixon was quite the compromiser in my opinion and did not seem rooted in any particular political philosophy, much less in a conservative one.  He is famously quoted as saying, "I am now a Keynesian in economics," which means that we can't trust markets, government is responsible for boosting employment and that activist policies will be the norm.  He took us off the last vestiges of the gold standard, made a mess of extricating ourselves from bloody foreign conflict and nearly propelled us into a nationalized health care system, not to mention establishing the EPA and signing off on banning DDT, which has since cost millions of lives around the world.  A spotty record, to be sure.

     President Reagan championed smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation.  His record is also spotty, but at least he had a set of well-defined principles and I think did his best to "nudge" the country in a new direction.  Awful deficits and an unwillingness to cut defense (of course, quite the contrary) were some of the consequences we still are living with.  Also, a timidness (and, failure) in dealing with Social Security and Medicare continue to haunt us.

     So, what kind of president would Romney make?  So far he strikes me as having few (if any) bedrock political beliefs.  His willingness to compromise is disturbing and his record of creating a state-run health care system in Massachusetts continues to be more than a little problematic.  [Sure, he was the governor of a very blue state, but still it makes me think he is not serious in his embrace of conservative principles.]  He seems to talk more like Reagan than Nixon, but I have no confidence that he wouldn't be willing follow a path more like the latter than the former.

     Still, armed with a Republican House, and hopefully (keeping all my fingers crossed) making Supreme Court appointments that look more like Alito than Sotomayor, wouldn't Romney still be preferred to a second Obama term?  It is a good question.  If the GOP holds onto the House, then another Obama term may lead to the emergence of a Republican candidate in 2016 that is more in the spirit of Reagan, which may have better consequences for us in the long run.  [Hmm . . . would Rand Paul be ready to take on this challenge?  I am already anxious to see a Paul/Rubio ticket sweep into the White House!]  The Supreme Court aside and counting on the House to put up roadblocks to ObamaCare, we may well be better served by extending Obama's presidency.

     Conclusions?  Well, maybe I will vote for Gary Johnson after all!

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