The underrated genius of great athletes

I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I can remember, but there are a handful of athletes I’ve manage to form deep admiration for despite never having the opportunity to watch them while they were still actively playing. The two at the very top are Bill Russell (basketball) and Johan Cruyff (soccer). Russell passed away last week at the age of 88. He was an important man whose deep committment to the Civil Rights Movement we are still growing in appreciation of, but I want to talk about his genius.

I mean genius in a far more literal sense than what we typically mean when referring to brilliant athletes or (ugh) “sports IQ”. What Bill Russell did on the basketball court was no less genius than what might be admired in chess or physics. I really believe that. There are a handful of team sports (basketball, soccer, hockey, etc) where the game involves enough independent agents interacting that real-time prediction elevates to a level of complexity that success within the game demands that a player either

  1. Dominate through one or more overwhelming attributes
  2. Wait for randomness to grant you an opportuntity to contribute
  3. Forecast events to maximally pursue opportunities to succeed

A teenager playing basketball with younger, smaller children can dominate absent any particular insight into the game. Similarly, someone who has practiced shooting 15 foot jumpshots or knows how to skate can contribute to a game simply by repeatedly going to a handful of positions and waiting for the game to presnt an opportunity. Neither, however, is remotely sufficient to come within a mile of sports played at the highest amateur levels, let alone sports played professionally. The very greatest athletes in professional sports come to dominate their respective games through their possession of both overwhelming attributes (both natural and acquired) and genius for pattern-recognition and real-time, within-game forecasting. We spend far too much time goggling over former and, in doing so, subtly denigrating the brilliance of the latter.

Bill Russell saw the patterns at play within a basketball game. When he played defense he knew where the ball was going, what the relevant player’s options would be, and how he could not only deny them the chance to score, but to deny them in a specific manner that would lead to his own team scoring in the subsequent transition. When Johan Cruyff played soccer, he could make as many as 6 or 7 consequent moves into open spaces, each creating different options for his teammates that would eventually lead to a goal scoring opportunity emergent from the series of micro-interactions created by the space and gravity of his own actions. These moments were neither clairovoyance or instinct. Their dominance was a product of intelligence in the purest sense.

Stop calling it “Sports IQ”

Instead of saying Lebron or Sidney Crosby is a genius, people instead often remark that they have a high basketball or hockey IQ. It drives me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve evolved from saying someone has great sport-specific “instincts”, which imply they are not even intellect-adjacent, but I don’t think we even need the sports-genre qualifiers. No one ever talks about a chemist or economist having field-specific intelligence, we just say they’re smart. You watch any fast-moving sport played at the highest level for a couple years, and you will come to appreciate that players are accomplishing feats of analysis under duress that are nothing short of incredible intellectual feats.

Funny enough, I think one of the contributors to our growing appreciation of the intellectual side of sports is video games. We knew chess players were really smart, but when we started programming computers to analyze millions of moves per second and it still took years for them to consistently beat the best humans, it probably raised our esteem for what chess players had achieved at the highest level.

Similarly, there is something about playing a game and controlling multiple players, transforming a team into a perfect hive mind of coordination granted by the top-down omniscience of their controlling deity that you appreciate what how perfect play might look. You participate in simulated perfection only to then subject yourself to the humbling limits of reality. Suddenly you are constrained by the information limitatons of a first-person view within the chaos of separate minds, moving at top speed (possibly on ice), while being hunted by an aggressive opposition (sometimes carrying lumber). And then it dawns on you that professionals produce an order within this caucophy of sweaty chaos that is only otherwise observable in a video game.

There are no doubt a host of reasons for this bias against crediting athletes with genius. First, racism. Nothing much more to say there other than, yeah, just straight-up racism and the penchant within sports commentary to de-intellectualize sports with the ascendancy of Black athletes in the 20th century.

Racism aside, I think there is also a particular bias against genius when it manifests in something hyper-specialized, particularly when the screening mechanisms are so intense that most of what gets observed is at the one in a million level (i.e. the 99.9999th percentile). At the highest level, professional sports are executed in a manner almost unrecognizable to how most observers might themselves have played or even observed first-hand, to the point of becoming unfamiliar, alien, and most importantly, unachievable. If something is intellectually unachievable, that may lower the relative estimation and status of the observer’s own intelligence. If, instead, what the athlete is demonstrating an innate proficiency for the specific physical task at hand, that’s just random, an anomaly made only relevant because of the peculiar game they play.

I’ll close with a manifestation of intelligence in sports that isn’t based in pattern-recognition or external complexity, but rather internal complexity. Simone Biles, in case you are not aware, is the greatest gymnast in history. To deny her standing in history is your prerogative, but even as a non-expert in gymnastics, allow me to assure you that you would be wrong. A moment that stuck with me in revealing her brilliance, ironically, was when she pulled herself from the previous Olympics. During the floor exercises and vault, Biles creates speed, vertical lift, shape, and multiple dimensions of body rotation. To organize a singular force diagram of her a physicist would require significant computational assistance or a whole bunch of math. Not only does Biles do this, she does it while her body is running, jumping, and rotating. She essentially tracks the problem in real time. What was amazing is that in the recent Olympics, still competing at an age considered well post-prime for gymnastics, she understood that she was not managing the physics problem with the reliablitiy and accuracy sufficient to perform her own routine. Could she have managed a set of simpler routines? Probably, but simpler ones had never been practiced. She confronted a dilemma: she had practiced routines that up until that moment no one else in the world could do but her, only now even she could not do them without presenting significant danger to herself and, in turn, no real help to her team. So what did she do on global television?

She withdrew from the Olympics. Which might be the single greatest moment of self-possession I’ve ever seen from an athlete. That probably counts as emotional intelligence, but I don’t actually know how that works and is a different post anyway.

There is real genius in professional sports. It’s time we started crediting them for it.

Converting office space and why second-best solutions are what move the world forward

Subscribing to the “Housing Theory of Everything” is to confront the fact that a problem can 1) be important, 2) effect (nearly) everyone, 3) have an obvious and welfare improving policy solution, and 4) still be politically stuck. Whether it’s classic prisoner’s dilemmas or a more subtle transitional gains traps, the reality is that building housing has proven incredibly difficult because there is a group whose wealth is overly concentrated in the stock of housing they own (i.e. nearly every homeowner in the US) and who have every incentive to fight to prevent new housing from being built because restricting housing supply increase the value of their propterty.

That’s it. That’s the whole story, everything else is bookkeeping and tactical anecdotes. So how do we solve this problem? One way is to motivate large swaths of voters to push for reform, but there’s only the entire body of political theory and history telling you that’s easier said than done when the opposition is concentrated and organized.

The thing is, building more housing is the “first best” solution- it’s not the only solution. Should we increase the housing stock, lower prices, make the average person wealthier and more economically secure, reduce homelessness, and spend all of eternity celebrating the victory of common sense in the halls of Valhalla? Yes, of course. But that “first best” solution isn’t available in a lot of places (see the previous two paragraphs). Besides beating our heads against the wall in the hopes of victory one spoonful of brick at a time, what else can we do? We can go looking for second-best solutions, particularly ones where the political opposition is softer and less organized.

Converting office space to residential housing is a near Platonic-ideal second best solution. Why? Because it produces more housing, albeit with the costs of conversion and likely subperfect design. What makes it a dream second-best solution for our dilemma, however, is all of the opposition mechanisms it dodges:

  1. There’s nothing remotely historic about most of these buildings.
  2. The are structured in such a way that lend themselve to high-density housing (i.e. apartment and condo towers).
  3. They’re predominantly in relatively dense urban and edge-city areas.
  4. Whatever views or skylines they are obstructing are already obstructed!
  5. There’s a built in interest group to push for the conversion (i.e. the building owners).
  6. There’s no pre-existing tenant or tenants who’s losses can be highlighted at the expense of everyone else’s gain.

First and second best categorization are always a little squishy because they depend on what you include in the costs and benefits. Building new housing from scratch might seem obviously the best possible outcome, but once you factor in the political costs of zoning and approval, there’s going to be a lot of locales where building conversion is the far lower cost option. I’m very much team “work from home” and this is just one more reason you should join our merry band of robe and slipper-types. Hollow out the offices, convert the buildings to housing, and watch the urban landscape transform from gray and glass offices to a utopia of urban singles skipping from brunch to brunch until their kids are born and their metabolisms slows down.

Now, to be clear, there is no political free lunch here. There will still be costly and difficult re-zoning obstacles in lots of places. Plenty of these building will need to be brought up to code. The locations may not be ideal relative to schools. But those costs and concerns are trifles when considered in the context that the median income in half of US cities is insufficient to rent a two bedroom apartment for less than 30% of gross income.

Democracy is messy and there’s no changing that. While it makes for bad sloganeering and will never insulate you from getting slagged on twitter, the reality is that second best solutions are what move peaceful societies forward. We have a lot of coalitions to keep happy, they all want something for themselves, and nothing is free. We have to work with what we got.

And what we got is a bunch of office buildings that nobody wants to work in anymore. Let’s live in them!

…and then work from home in them? In what used to be the offices we didn’t want to work in?


How many of our problems come from captured land value?

I can’t shake the idea that captured land value serves as the origin, or at least accelerant, of a great deal of the problems in the United States. What if the YIMBY vs NIMBY fight is just the most visable element of the core economic disease in America? A heads up, if you’re expected a deeply researched 5,000 word post that will YIMBY “pill” your most skeptical colleague, make your peace with disappointment now. But if you’re into policy failures and run-on sentences, you’re in for a good time.

I just can’t get over how often the examination of seemingly every subpar economic context (not immediately attributable to a pandemic or war) comes down to people X are geographically constrained, they need to be proximate to a specific physical location to produce or consume Y, and a huge amount of the economic surplus that would be created from any sort of exchange is captured by land/property owners because legal constraints on development have made the physical place in which an exchange happens THE short side of nearly every market that is pointed to as a failing institution.

Seriously, go through the list of everything that leaves critics of markets ready to burn capitalism (and its fostering society) to the ground. Wages are too low relative to rent. Rent is too high in the places that are near the jobs I want. Public schools aren’t good enough unless you’re willing to carry a mortage that would account for 70% of your take-home pay. Healthcare…eh, maybe not healthcare. Healthcare is crappy for its own bespoke and byzantine set of reasons.

I am a person with no shortage of bodily ailments because I chose to play lots of sports despite never being especially good at them. As a result, I am an avid consumer of physical therapy and therapeutic massage. I have had many conversations about the economics of these fields, and I am now 100% certain that the key to making a career at either, given a minimal level of competence, is not how good you are at your job, but your capacity and good fortune in solving your real estate problem. The entire Massage Envy empire appears to exist not based on greater competence in technique, training, or personnel. It exists solely to extract rents from employees because scale lets them solve the real estate problem (and probably pool liability risk, too). The single biggest thing an individual professional can do to increase their yearly income is not win an award for Therapist of the Year or get 5 stars on Yelp. It’s buying a house with a room they can use as a home office, where they can pay “rent” to themselves and take a tax deduction for the office.

I was once told a likely apocryphal story (that I can’t find on the internet, so it’s probably not true) that the then CEO of Starbucks declared “We make coffee, but we’re in the real estate business.” That their business had matured to the point where revenues could be projected with sufficient accuracy that the profitability had been reduced to identifying opportunities in the real estate market. I don’t know if that ever happened, but that still seems about right to me.

Housing costs hold a special place in how we view our own economic status and security going forward, in part because food costs have been reliably low for so long (knocks on all of the wood). When the rent goes up we feel worse off, not just because we have less disposable income today, but because it increases our expectations for future rent increases as well. We have lots of words for economic insecurity and desperation, but nothing quite makes your blood run cold like the prospect of being homeless, even for the briefest moment.

The phrase “paying your nut” is a lot less common these days. You usually only hear it from self-employed people who live off of a la carte incomes, either in entertainment, freelance, or contracting work. It refers to the minimum amount you have to earn in a month to avoid significant consequences, usually the aggregate of rent/mortgage, utilities, and debt payments. Economists talk about “nominal” and “real” incomes to account for the changes in prices people face. Sometimes there is discussion of “money illusion” where people living under inflation are fooled by higher take-home pay into thinking they’ve become richer. I’ve never been persuaded that nearly anyone suffers from money illusion, nor do I think folks track national price indices and growth statistics.

I think people just know whether it’s easier or harder to pay their nut, and the simplest version of that is the ratio of their take home pay to their rent. Paycheck divided by rent, full stop. If you follow this blog or Jeremy on twitter, you’ll know that one of the puzzles frequently revisited is why Americans are so pessimistic about the economic dynamics of the last 20 to 30 years, and why younger people seem terribly aggrieved about their relative economic status.

So if generational income is fairly consistent and median home mortages account for a slightly declining fraction of median income, what gives? Well, it could all be one big economic mass hysteria, but I’ve got a simpler explanation: the ratio of rent to income to has skyrocketed in the places that young people want to live. Maybe I’m overprojecting my own lived experience, but when I was 25 I did not want to live in a rural area, the suburbs of a major city, or even the downtown of a minor city. I wanted to live in a proper big city. And for a young person, that means living in a small apartment, possibly with roommates, which is exactly the kind of housing places like California stopped building.

Why do so many young people seem pessimistic? Putting aside the absolute failure of politics to produce meaningful climate policy, the simplest explanation is that they have an unpleasant choice. They can live in the same places young people have always lived, only absent any possibility of savings and economic security. Or they can be dispersed from the cultural and economic capitals of our country, and try to build social networks without the benefits of the generational density, plethora of events, and dating markets that have been the hallmark of being a young person in the city since World War I (if not longer).

What will solve this? Policy? California has showed some glimmers of hope. Young people voting with their feet, moving to the shining middle-sized cities that are allowing for growth and affordable rents? Could be, but critical mass is real and growing into a proper metropolis takes decades. Work from home?

That’s interesting enough that I’ll write about it next week. I have thoughts and policy prescriptions, in case any major city is looking for a czar of housing policy (NB: I’m not qualified, but available).

Severance and the Disutility of Work

For those who were unaware, we are apparently a Severance blog now, a trend made all the better since nobody else is talking about the show anymore. Like all high concept fiction, the show can be consumed as a metaphor, in this case usually as a metaphor for modern office work. While I consume more than my share of metaphors, I usually find speculating about the “true” underlying metaphor driving a piece of storytelling to be more fun than useful. Instead, let’s talk about what the central conceit of the show actually is, namely a return to explicit slavery. Not almost slavery. Not wage slavery. Not “I’d rather be playing Minecraft on Twitch than making pivot tables in Excel ” slavery.

Actual slavery. The hook, through a clever bit of science fiction, is that it is slavery through a channel that allows a person to enslave the only person that we can imagine the world allowing to pass as anything but grossly criminal: themselves. The person you are enslaving to toil on your behalf happens to be a partitioned-off portion of your own consciousness (known as an “innie”) who continues to operate within a now shared bodily meat sack while your “outie” consciousness goes into a apparent blacked-out stasis. The innie does all the work, while the outie reaps (nearly all) all of the material rewards.

One take away is that there are people so desperate to not have to go to their jobs that they will carve off 8 hours a day out of their own claim to existence, a full third of their life, grant independent sentience to that third, and then enslave it. Putting aside the moral repugnance of such a decision for a second, one can’t help but ponder the preferences being revealed by an individual paying such a price.

Never trust a “unified theory” of damn near anything. It’s usually bullshit from the first moment, a cheap trick for gaining attention while grotesquely overreaching for importance in what is either a relatively mundane insight or a bit of intellectual sleight of hand designed to misdirect the reader from a deep underlying fallacy.


The price we’re willing to pay to not do something we don’t like often reveals more about ourselves than the prices we pay for the things we do like. The cost we’re willing to inflict on others reveals it all the more.

One of my little mental tricks when trying to understand human behavior that I can’t quite grok is to swap out a “utiliity maximizing” model for a “disutility minimizing” model. Trying to understand why a person would enslave a portion of themselves within the framework of “what are they maximizing?” lends itself to complex speculation on dimensions of their lives we can’t observe. Flipping it around, however, and asking what they are minimizing is immediately more intuitive. Without getting too deep into spoilers, there’s clearly a motive to minimize the disutility of work itself. Of toil, tedium, and drudgery. Of being told what to do and doing what you are told.

The hypothesis of Severance is that people will create an enslaved conscious person and explicitly deny the humanity of that person if, in doing so, they can minimize their own disutility of work. The corporation that creates these institutions in this fictional world will probably turn out to be either decadently evil in pursuit of pure profit or banally evil in pursuing some sort of yet unseen greater good. Even if they have rich and tragic back stories, the middle management that keep the plantation functioning are morally wretched individuals who have chosen to enable slavery to preserve their own status quo. The corporation, the managers, these are the bad guys. The heavys. The bullys who gain from the suffering of others.

But they’re not the monsters. The only monsters in the world of Severance are the individuals who made a choice to create and enslave another person solely so they themselves might enjoy a life without toil or tedium.

The cost that you are willing inflict on another in an effort to minimize your own discomfort reveals a lot about you. Whether you’re a socialist preaching “solidarity”, an economist who knows that Smithian “sympathy” is the glue of modern society, or just someone who thinks that it all comes down to coping with the prisoner’s dilemma, how a person values the suffering of others is a defining attribute.

Which brings me to a question I think only the creaters of Severance can answer. Is the conceit of their show to show that people will enslave a portion of themselves because they deny the humanity of their creation? Or is it that an office job is so abhorrent that opportunity to offload that burden to another while keeping the rewards for themselves overcomes any sympathy they might have for the other?

This show isn’t a metaphor. It’s a model. In this sense, Severance may be the most misanthropic hypothesis of humanity in the economically developed world I’ve ever observed. That humans, freed of the disutility of possible starvation or annihilation, will take any opportunity to minimize their own discomfort, even at the cost of a third of their lives and moral rot that comes with the enslavement and denied humanity of another. Somewhere, in the deep dark noughaty core of this piece of fiction is the consideration that, freed from our need for one another, our antipathy for discomfort will birth an idle, half-drunk decadence that will lead us to literally eat away at ourselves.

Or maybe the creators just all had office jobs while they were trying to make it in hollywood, and they really, really hated them.

Be Like Pete

Pete Buttigieg is the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration. He has made an interesting habit of going on Fox News and willingly submitting himself to what his interlocutors clearly anticipate to be difficult “gotcha” questions that will leave their liberal target squirming on camera. Secretary Buttigieg seems to always come out the clear winner and I think there is something to be learned from it.

The easy answer is that Buttigieg is smarter and more polished than the Fox News interviewers, which he is, but I thank that’s easy to overrate. There is no shortage of smart people who wouldn’t fair half as well as the Secretary does. Part of it is his calm and poise, but credit should also go to just being nice. That niceness really puts people on the back foot. The secret sauce, in my estimation, is that he never for a second sounds like he is arguing. There’s no sense that he is interested in a back in forth. He never gives anyone an opening to raise their voice, to seem attacked.

But it’s not just being nice. The interviewer in the first clip quickly realizes that his question has failed to get the desired reaction, and subsequently tries to interrupt him at multiple points. The Secretrary simply ignores him and proceeds with his answer without missing a beat or raising his voice. He’s the G-d— Secretary of Transportation. He doesn’t have to be deferential to some teleprompter anchorman trying to raise points of political decorum and social norms with a member of the opposition party that has been given no quarter on their network for 20 years.

So how do you be like Pete?

  1. Be nice.
  2. Know your stuff.
  3. Never defer to anyone who isn’t nice and doesn’t know their stuff.

Being nice is inclusive of being polite, but there is more to it. It means being generous in the motives you assume in others, including those who are questioning or arguing with you. It means using tones of voice and choices of language that don’t imply you are dealing with an enemy or a fool, even when dealing with a foolish enemy.

Knowing your stuff means that you can explain choices and positions clearly and concisely in a manner than allows the people listening to you to actually learn something. Knowing you stuff, however, also confers on you the right to finish your thoughts. If others prefer your conversation be more akin to a verbal brawl, that’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they get to dictate where your thoughts begin and end just because they’ve lost control of the outcome. Knowledge should confer some privleges, be them however limited.

And finally, being like Pete means never deferring to people who don’t want to play by the rules of basic civility and have nothing to contribute to the conversation. You’ve got a job to do and being nice will help you do it all the better. So be nice, until it’s time to not be nice.

The Third Act of American Prohibition

As you know, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, effectively giving states the ability to legislate the conditions, if any, under which abortion is legal. Many states had trigger laws in place, meaning that abortion became partially, mostly, or entirely illegal immediately. While some states already had laws in place protecting the right to an abortion, others are expected to pass new legislation restricting abortion access in the near term.

So, to summarize, there is a medical service for which there is significant demand. That demand, at the micro level of an individual consumer, comes with time pressure in a heightened emotional context. The supply of the service will vary geographically. Given the clustering of states that are prohibiting abortion in the south and midwest, there will be considerable heterogeneity in legal abortion access based almost entirely on physical distance and access to transportation.

Advocates for the banning of abortion are aware of this and have responded in some states by adding heavy punishments for aiding and abetting abortion access, some going as far as granting access to civil lawsuits or offering rewards for third-parties who tip off authorities to those who have received an abortion.

Prohibition of a good with strong demand, heterogeneous legal supply, and heavy punishments for those seeking to enable arbitrage across state lines. This is not a new story. First alcohol, then narcotics, now abortion. This might feel different because abortion is a service good, but it’s not. Why?

Because of mifepristone and misoprostol, often referred to as “The abortion pill”:

As it stands, a state cannot ban a drug with FDA approval, but access is nonetheless thin. There will also be, with similarly little doubt, efforts to quickly ban mifepristone and misoprostol, with accompanying heavy punishments. Eleven weeks is a long enough window that it will cover the majority of abortions. It’s small and portable, which means it will be easily transported and resold. It will also remain perfectly legal in a number of states bordering those prohibiting abortion. There will be, with nearly zero doubt, a booming black market in mifepristone and misoprostol within a matter of months.

But this isn’t a medical procedure provided in a fixed building with identifiable practitioners. These will be pills that will be exchanged in school bathrooms and college dorms, purchased by professional women who drove 300 miles in a Lexus and came back with enough to give to their professional friends who want to be proactive and prepared for daughters who may be sexually active. Further, these aren’t addictive products: there won’t be weekly customers whose symptoms will create patterns of consumption and the kinds of collateral damage that attract attention. Passive enforcement of these laws will be highly ineffective.

In some places, enforcement on pill restrictions will simply be weak, meaning anyone whose pregnancy can be terminated in the short run will retain some meaningful access. The price will be elevated like any good where suppliers incur legal risk, which means access to abortion will correlate heavily with income, resources, and social privilege. This will also shift the effective burden of abortion restrictions towards the later term “abortions” that only account for 1.3% of terminated pregnancies, but are more heavily associated with medical emergencies, incomplete miscarriages, and the kinds of pregnancy events associated with trauma and shame (e.g. rape or incest) where a women is not necessarily in a position to take decisive early action. Given that the majority of Americans averse to abortion are principally concerned with late term abortions, but also believe abortion should always be an option when the health of the mother is in jeopardy, it is expecially vexxing that laws that reduce access to early term abortions will increase the previously miniscule demand for late term abortions.

I expect some states will attempt to enforce prohibitions or limitations on mifepristone and misoprostol with a war-on-drugs like zeal. How do you heavily enforce a ban on a small pill that is easily hidden, not regularly used, legally manufactured in other states, and has a viable market with high income individuals? Experience tells us the answer is to dedicate lots of resources while carrying little regard for individual rights or public safety.

Marijuana legalization has spread rapidly across the country. District attorneys are increasingly uninterested in prosecuting minor possession charges of nearly any drug. In 1993 state and local governments spent $15.9 billion on the criminal justice of drug enforcement, $26 billion by 2003. Now it’s probably closer to $40 billion (I couldn’t easily find a good current estimate). That’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of government jobs, with government job security, many of whom might be wondering what their job is actually going to be in five years. They needn’t worry. When one prohibition closes a door, a new one opens a window.

Local governments have been seizing property, charging fines and fees, and generally subsidizing their local tax bases on the back of the drug war for decades now. Cracking down on a new banned substance might not work for a variety of reasons already listed, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try, particularly if trying means getting a lot of political attention while hosting photo ops with seized contraband next to local police and publicly shaming perpetrators as unforgivable monsters.

Prohibition of alcohol failed in large part because it made nearly everyone a criminal. Alcohol appealed across every strata of American life. Most Americans had a hidden liquor cabinet, a favored speakeasy, or even a backyard still. That breadth and depth of demand brought tremendous profits to those who could supply it outside of the law and, eventually, tremendous violence from those eager to capture those profits.

Demand for abortion access, whether for discretionary reasons or medical necessity, appears randomly in lives, but those rolls of the dice are inclusive of nearly every woman and every family. With that breadth and depth of demand will come a black market. Possibly even a highly profitable market. Materially profitable for suppliers. Politically profitable for those legislating to suppress it. Budgetarily profitable for those working every day to destroy it. These prohibition rents will appear, they will be fought for, and they will sustain themselves through a process that will destroy lives. Mostly women.

The third act of American Prohibition is here and it will hurt us all. Mostly women.

Labor market tournaments and the cost of almost making it

Two weeks ago Tyler Cowen observed the increasing presence of family lineages in the NBA. The post is without much commentary, so I won’t impute any theory on Tyler’s behalf, but I suspect most people would observe this as the a product of genetics combined with the increased ability of NBA teams to precisely identify the attributes and aptitudes they want. There could also be a component of nepotism i.e. 2nd generation players are given greater leeway and time to develop, but given the revenues on the line in professional sports and the dependence on labor to compete, those effects are likely to be weak.

I’d like to offer an alternative theory to genetics that I refer to as “Better last than second”. There are certain lines of work, such as athletics, acting, music, or twitch streaming that are best thought of as winners-take-all labor tournaments. Any occupation where the concept of “making it” is well understood by its participants as an elusive but desirable goal can be considered a labor tournament.

There are lots of labor tournaments (academia for instance), but in most of them 2nd, 3rd, or Nth place are reasonably tolerable outcomes because the rewards correlate fairly linearly with any success level beyond abject failure. Nobody worries about being the 27,342nd ranked accountant in the world – that person likely makes a good living. Even if they can’t get a job as an accountant, they have skills that readily translate to a variety of other well-paid occupations. Winning is merely a (highly remunerative) cherry on top of an already pretty good oucome.

Basketball players worry a great deal about being the 474th best in the world.

The NBA at any given moment has 450 employees on their rosters. A couple dozen more float in and out on short term contracts to fill in for injuries and other player absences. The league minimum salary is $925k per season. The NBA developmental league (the G League) pays about 37k per season. That already makes it sound like the earnings dropoff from being the 449th best player to the 474th player is enormous, but it’s actually much, much worse.

It’s worse because basketball skills translate to the tiniest sliver of other jobs. Television acting, DJing house music, colorfully live streaming a Castlevania speed run: these are all skills that can pay large sums of money if you cross some imaginary threshold and “make it.” The catch that distinguishes “better last than second” markets from other winner-take-all labor tournaments is that participation requires the dedication of tens of thousands of hours building human capital whose rewards are skewed almost entirely towards a selected few. Those thousands of hours play out over the course of a survival game where, month by month, year by year a new round of “losers” is selected out.

The irony being that losing first is better than than getting the silver medal. Losing first means rebooting your life early and building up your human capital in something else (hopefully in something more forgiving of merely being very, very good). The silver medalist is, in fact, the biggest loser. The opportunity cost of time and energy they will never get back and never be rewarded for. I don’t worry about players that don’t get NCAA scholarships or drafted for the NBA. I worry about the guys hanging around in the G league until they’re 34 only to get released from their contract over a text message. I worry about the actors who’ve spoken 15 lines across 24 television guest spots and 3 commercials in 11 years based mostly on aesthetics, only to wake up at 34 and find themselves in the uncastable valley of normalcy. I worry about the members of all the bands I like but none of my friends have ever heard of.

Which brings us back to NBA lineages and why they seem to be becoming more common. If your father was in the NBA in the 80s or 90s, you probably come from upper-middle class or better means and, in turn, have the backing to tolerate the financial risk of not making it. Second, almost making it is likely to be less costly for you because you are part of a basketball family. Your name will grant you far greater access to the small number of basketball-adjacent jobs that will value your skills (i.e. coaching, scouting, recruiting, commentary, etc). Being part of a lineage makes that silver medal a lot more valuable. Maybe just as importantly, your family is likely to be a lot more supportive and tolerant of the risk you are taking. If your one of your parents had a six year run on Dynasty or made a living on the LPGA tour, they’re that much more likely to see a path to success for you.

As athletics become more lucrative, they become better understood. As they become better understood, the body of highly specific tacit knowledge grows as well. Lineage players will have access to this tacit knowledge through their parents. Dell Curry knew his son wasn’t going to particularly tall (Steph Curry is listed as 6′2", and official NBA heights are notoriously generous). This lead him to entirely reinvent his son’s shooting form in a manner that rendered him unable to shoot from any distance at all for months, entirely based on his understanding as a former NBA player that his son’s lack of genetic predisposition to play in the NBA required a motion that would catapult shots over much taller players. Even if lineage players do have genetic advantages in the high school and college stages of the tournament, the value of these advantages pale in comparison to the advantages of tacit knowledge precisely because of the stage of the game at which they are leveraged.

One could even argue that any genetic advantages that correlate to success at the early stages of a “better last than second” tournament (i.e. being 6’8″) are akin to a resource curse, giving the false impression of a non-trivial probability of “making it.” Conversely, a lack of genetic gifts (i.e. being 6’2″) while having access to the tacit knowledge valued at the last stage of the tournament truly are a blessing. If you survive the tournament until the last round without the obvious endowments other players have, you probably have a rich portfolio of other skills which, combined with the previously mentioned late-stage tacit knowledge, means you’ve been playing the game with less risk and greater expected value than others.

“Better last than second” labor tournaments are common in high prestige entertainment fields, but they aren’t limited to them. Any academic field that produces PhDs with little to no demand in the private market shuttle thousands of students through exactly such a tournament. The only difference is that the gold medal is a $87k a year job with the job security of tenure and “almost making it” often includes crippling student loans. It shouldn’t be much of a surpise that academia is full of lineages, too. And with those academic parents will come the knowledge of how decisions made in high school, college, grad school, and beyond will determine they win their respective labor tournaments. Or lose and have to settle for saving the world.

The story of social media isn’t over

Saturday I opened twitter and was immediately confronted with bad news that threatened to turn tragic.

This was horrible. “That’s horrible” I said. I spent a moment’s thought reflecting on what might have happened and then continued down my feed.

Within seconds of continued scrolling, I was confronted with this:

My mentality changed immediately. This was no longer a tragic event happening to an anonymous person in a context I had no capacity, nor obligation, to offer assistance. This was a problem and time was a factor. I started thinking about who I knew in Florida. Did I have any friends holding a position through which they could offer assistance? Was there a social cluster I was connected to I could reach out to through social media? Hospitals, law enforcement, travel. Who did I know? I became despondent when it became clear I had nothing to offer but a retweet.

After a few seconds I returned to reading what I realized was a thread of tweets only to be given the relief of wonderful news, a happy ending that was directly a product of sharing on twitter:

The arc of drama (from the privilege of my physical and personal distance from actual events) was over in less than 30 seconds. What I was left with was a simple truth: I was sympathetic, but comfortably detached from a tragic event actively unfolding. It wasn’t my problem nor was it something I could do anything about until I found out I knew someone involved.

Barely knew. I had exchanged a couple messages with Omar about a year ago. A handful of polite thoughts about something Omar tweeted that was of mutual interest. That’s it. That’s the totality of our interactions. But with it came a completely different framing, a level of connection that elevated an evocation of standard sympathy to a potential call to action.

Twitter, that engine of animosity and toothless rage, had made me care more about a stranger through the simplest of social connections.

Comedians and other entertainment professions often tell the same simple story about online trolls that goes something like this:

  1. Someone writes something mean about the entertainer on twitter
  2. The entertainer responds to the troll in a polite and controlled manner that invites them to more civil engagement or simply reveals that the trolls comments are hurtful.
  3. The troll evaporates, replaced by a person excited to re-acknowledge the basic humanity and worth of their previous target.

A moment of direct interaction transforms, in the eyes of the troll, a previously two-dimensional narrative prop into a flesh and bone person worthy of dignity. We’re awash in the denigration of targeted individuals by detached opportunists seeking status and approbation through targeted cruelty. What is underappreciated is the opportunity in this moment for the target to reach back and give the troll what they actual want: to be seen.

This next part is probably not the leap you are expecting, but there is a long history of media radically changing how we acknowledge and internalize the humanity of others. In this vein, there is arguably no more famous and impactful image than the seal of the The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787), asking “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Not to be glib about such an important and horrifying part of our history, but this image blew people’s minds. In David Levy’s amazing history of how economics came to be referred to as “The Dismal Science”, he relates the efforts of Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and other figures in English literature to deny the basic humanity of non-White men and women, particularly those from Africa and Ireland. Key to their efforts were stories, particularly those coupled with drawings, that explicitly portrayed the targets of their denigration as something far removed from humanity as a species. It was to their chagrin that the “Man and Brother?” image went the 18th century equivalent of viral.

It not only shocked households all over England to learn that the victims of the slave trade were clearly human in every sense of the word, it sparked an undeniable chain of logic. If these are men and women, then they can learn to read. If they can read, then they can come to know the Bible and their souls can be saved. If they can be saved then we have an obligation to teach them to read, offer them a Bible, and welcome them as brothers and sisters.

This image forced the reconsidered worth of others and with that reconsideration a calling for their liberation and salvation. This image, and others like it, changed who was human.

Social media is currently how many of us stay on the bleeding edge of news. It’s a way for us to promote ourselves and our work. It’s also a hellscape of acrimony, bad faith arguments, bullying mobs, and malicious propaganda. That’s what it is today. But that doesn’t mean that’s all it can ever be. Film and television changed the world as entirely passive, one-directional media. Most of the downsides of social media are born of interactions that, by little more than the inertia of the mob, often behave as if it were a one-directional media, carrying the masses along in the tidal wave of an irresistible narrative. There remains the possibility, the hope, that the capacity to interact meaningfully will eventually reclaim it as a multi-directional discourse, where the people we interact with become more real. More human. Where calls to serve can overwhelm and displace calls to destroy.

The story of social media isn’t over. There is still time for it to become something more. Where the people on the other side of claims and jokes and accusations become more human, not less. Where we broaden the ranks of who we offer our best to and shrink those whom we condemn with our worst.

It’s nice going to the movies again

Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of those truly great movies that manages to be high and low art at the same time. It is beautiful, absurd, timeless, and inspiring. It is without question my favorite expression of positive nihilism in popular art I’ve ever come across. There is no intrinsic meaning to life, but in that absence there is the opportunity to fill that empty vessel with meaning of your own design. As the characters ponder their own designs on how to impose meaning on the shifting and chaotic ocean of the multiverse, they present theories of strength, weakness, destiny, and fashion. I loved this film.

I also saw the new Top Gun film. I consumed a heroic amount of popcorn and diet pepsi. I learned absolutely nothing. I’m not sure I ever had a serious thought during it’s entire run time. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. I’m just so terribly happy to be going to the movies again.

The Political Economy of Crazy

The Ohio State House of Representative has passed an absolutely insane law granting adults the option to challenge the gender of children participating in youth sports. This thread has the details, read at your own emotional peril:

Now, let’s keep a few things in mind. First, it hasn’t passed the Senate yet, which won’t make a decision until November. Second, there is no guarantee the governor would sign it into law if it passes the Senate. Third, the likelihood that such a law would hold up in court seems slim, though I’m certainly not a legal expert. Fourth, it strikes me as extremely unlikely the Republican party has any interest in having the legally prescribed violation of children as something they have to defend in subsequent elections.

So then what the hell just happened? Why have state houses of representatives become places where the lunatic fringe not only can get an institutional toehold, but actually push legislation through?

Let me answer my own question with a different question.

Can you name your state house representative? Name you name any representative from your state house? Can you name anyone who has been a representative in your state house that didn’t subsequently gain fame in national politics?

I can’t either.

The simple fact seems to be that voters don’t pay much attention to state representatives. Voter turnout is dependent on the draw of elections for national offices, and subsequent voter decisions largely leverage party brand. But that doesn’t mean candidates don’t have options. There are, of course, brands within parties (progressive Democrats, Trumpist Republicans, etc), which are particularly important in primaries. There are campaign platform choices that may resonate with informed voters, as well. The notion that informed voters can swing an election depends depends on the Miracle of Aggregation and the Law of Large Numbers. Simply put, if the voter errors are random, then completely ignorant voters should cancel out, leaving the outcome to be determined by the minority of informed voters.

What happens with a vanishingly thing number of people are informed, though? Candidates could inform them, but this is a state house election. Candidates don’t have any campaign money to inform them with. What they need is free campaign advertising. What they need is attention.

You know what gets attention? Crazy. Crazy gets attention.

Proposing and passing legislation to allow strangers to demand that children be physically inspected to determine their gender, that will get attention. That the “legitimacy” of a childs physical appearance be publicly brought into doubt, in front of peers and a crowd of peers. The shock, the tears, they chumming of the waters for the angriest parents and the most unhinged theories, that gets people to write articles and tweets. Articles and tweets that might include a candidate’s name. And if people know a candidate’s name, they might check their box come election time.

Social media gives the impression that everyone is paying attention to everything, but I suspect it is exactly the oppositve. We’ve never bored anymore, which means that the price of grabbing our attenion is higher than ever. For shoestring campaigns, the only way to get over the top is to offer somethings so irresistible that voters will be compelled to grant them a moment’s thought. Which isn’t to say that all of this insanity is pure pantomime. Sure, there are incentives to acting crazy. But causality can go the other way as well. The less we pay attenion to state politics, the more that elections will select for crazy.

This is all a long way of saying that I don’t see any reason it won’t keep getting even dumber.