Tag Archives: Posted by Leonard Ng’eno

Race-to-the bottom watch: competitive babies?

This spoof cover from the Onion advertising “How to get your premature babies into the best incubators” presents a comical account of parents anxious to give their children a leg up on the competition.  The humor of the cover, however—like the comedic value of most good jokes—comes not from its outlandishness but from the close-to-home truth it conveys.

Particularly in the fields of academics and athletics, parents are reacting to competitive pressures by pushing their kids to start earlier and work harder.  The 2008 documentary Nursery University documents how some New York City preschools are charging up to $20,000 per semester per child—higher than the average tuition of private American universities.  It should come as no surprise that this escalating preschool market is taking place in one of the most densely populated places in the world.  The high volume of children in the city results in a high demand for a limited amount of spots at “elite preschools.”

Many bloggers, including economics professor Charles Wheelen, have noted that participation in sports has also become increasingly competitive among younger players.  The goal of little league – in which I was taught “to have fun”—is slowly fading away as parents and coaches enforce the omnipresent urge to win.  Sometimes pursuing the goal of winning even comes at the cost making kids prone to certain kinds of avoidable injuries, which at times even eventuate into the need for reconstructive surgery.  Wheelen writes:

“If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific.  But I don’t think that’s what is going on.  As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.

The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one.  Here’s the problem with that:  The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed.  So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.

If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements.  And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing ‘kick the can’ in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids’ lives are worse for it.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a race to the bottom is the difficulty or impossibility of escaping it.  If parents prevent their children from starting competitive sports until they are ten years old or even older, then those kids will have to live with a competitive disadvantage unless all the other parents make this same decision.  On the other hand, pushing kids into sports and preschools earlier and earlier degenerates into a race to the bottom in which everybody comes out worse off.

It remains to be seen what mechanisms could prevent this collective action problem.  Wheelen points out that little leaguers are operating with fewer regulations that professional athletes.  While this lack of regulation used to suffice due to a lack of necessity, it seems increasingly possible that regulations are needed to protect even the youngest of the current generation from plunging into various races to the bottom.


Race-to-the-bottom watch: The sensational path to the gutter

In today’s 24-hour coverage by cable and internet news media, keeping abreast with current events has become more convenient than ever, but has the increased quantity of news come at the expense of quality?

The ubiquitous nature of news as a product of technological innovation has created a fierce competition among media outlets. Cable news networks such as FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC compete daily to increase their market share of a limited number of viewers. In this market of perfect or almost perfect substitutes, the logical option to beating your competitors would be to try as much as possible to differentiate your product from the rest of the field, and this is exactly what cable news networks engage in.

A favorite strategy of networks in distinguishing their products is to rely on the over-the-top personalities of their journalists. As a consequence, we have seen a gradual shift of importance away from the news and towards the newscaster, as the voices of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Lou Dobbs, and many others work to define a particular station’s unique image. The assumption underlying this trend is that news on its own is not enough to attract viewers; therefore, networks compensate for the dull news with flamboyant hosts (and extreme guests) who do extended opinion shows on the events of the day.

The conundrum is that as one network becomes more entertaining, the others have to scramble to catch up if they want to avoid being left in the dust.  So far, the three major networks have all done their share to stay competitive, but what has been left in the dust is the news they were originally intended to report.

A recent study done by the WorldPublicOpinion.org found that, while there is a significant number of misinformed viewers of all cable news outlets, FoxNews viewers are the most likely to be misinformed about objective facts in current affairs. This may come as no surprise however, as the industry incentives to sensationalize have, for example, frequently led FoxNews’ primetime pundit Glenn Beck to turn world news into entertaining puppet shows for his audiences to enjoy. And puppet shows are not even the end of the story. Some viewers have even turned exclusively to Comedy Central’s Colbert Report or The Daily Show for their portion of the day’s news.

For cable news, the race to entertain viewers has led to a race to the bottom in factual reporting. In order for a network to be competitive, it has to have its own brand of radical anchors that cater to a specific and ever-more partisan audience. The result has been the creation of a perpetually polarized atmosphere and an uneducated viewership. Only time will tell if the demand for entertainment news programs will continue or if viewers will become disillusioned and seek alternative or additional sources for news, hundreds of which are already available online.

Race-to-the-Bottom Watch: Are We Drowning in Advertising

Advertisements are everywhere.  Cabs and busses are covered in full-size ads, billboards are placed every 50 yards along highways, YouTube now plays ads before you can watch the video you intended, TV events are created out of one-sentence announcements (e.g. Heisman Trophy presentation, American Idol final), pop-ups pervade web browsing while we simultaneously find ads for pop-up blocker applications, high school prom dances turn into ads for the usefulness of duct tape, and people are ever getting paid to get advertisements tattooed on their bodies.  A 2009 study suggests that the average American adult spends over an hour a day watching advertisements on TV alone.

But really, you’ve got to feel sorry for the advertisers, don’t you? Think about it: the more ads that are put into the public domain, the less effective each individual ad becomes.

This stems from the fact that advertisers are competing to satisfy the existing and limited demand of a consumer base, rather than creating new demand.  Think of the sheer volume of ads for food and drinks.  These companies are not assuming that without advertisements people will just not eat at all; rather, they assume that people are going to eat somewhere, and advertisements are intended to direct the consumers’ demand in their direction.

While there is a certain amount of demand created by advertisements, advertisers aren’t so naïve as to assume that they can convince you, with a single 30-second spot, to buy a brand new car out of the blue.  Rather, their primary interest is to direct, and at times exaggerate, a consumer’s existing desires.  This means that marketers are essentially competing to win the same consumer demand, and consequently, with each entrance of a new competitor, the old ones have to fight even harder to maintain its market share.

Imagine visiting a city for the first time and getting lost on your way to the hotel.  Contrast the following scenarios:

Scenario 1 –You pull over and ask someone for directions.  The person says they know where you are intending to go and gives you concise enough directions to follow.

Scenario 2 – You pull over and ask a group of people for directions.  They all say that they know where you are intending to go and each gives you concise enough directions that you believe you can execute—however; everyone in the group gives you a different set of directions that lead you to altogether distinct places!

Presumably in scenario 1, you would simply follow the directions you were given, but scenario 2 seems much more confusing.  Whose directions are you to follow?  The person who has lived in the city the longest?  The one who seemed most confident?  The one who claimed to be a taxi driver?  The one who claimed to be a doctor?  The one who was most well dressed?  In fact, the situation seems altogether so confusing that you will probably reject all of their opinions and ask a new person or try purchasing a map.

The same confusion arises when advertisers compete for your demands.  The more businesses that decide to advertise, the more the existing advertisers have to shout louder, in more places, and in smarter ways in order to get your attention.  This ultimately leads to more and more of our dollars and minutes being spent on advertisements every year. We are, in short, in a commercial race to the bottom wherein the more effort that is expended leads to not only fewer gains but higher costs for both businesses and consumers. 

Race-to-the-Bottom Watch: Fishing for Trouble

What’s the most deadly occupation in America? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s fishing. Commercial fishing, to be precise. Why is fishing so dangerous? Fisherman can be trapped in a perfect storm of collective-action problems and, well, actual storms.

The harsh competition in this already dangerous industry is leading workers to labor in ever-worse sea conditions in order for businesses to stay afloat (so to speak). The best fishing grounds are often found in the most treacherous seas, and the clock ticks down quickly in some fisheries (say, the crab fishery off the coast of Alaska) where the seasons last only a few weeks. When one vessel decides to go out in stormy weather in order to get a competitive edge, crews of other vessels are faced with the dilemma of either falling behind the competition or following suit in braving the potentially life-threatening conditions.

This dilemma is only exacerbated by the depleted state of many of the world’s most important fisheries.  In an effort to stem the “tragedy of the commons” of overfishing, authorities have commonly resorted to setting an overall limit of fish that can be caught in a given fishery for a given season.  The approach of giving an aggregated limit breeds intense competition because each fish caught by one fisherman entails one fewer available to all the others.  This creates what has become known as a “race to fish” wherein fishermen are willing to do almost anything in order to nab a greater share of the overall quota before it runs out, including foregoing safety precautions.

So this race to fish is really a race to the bottom. One crew deciding to risk the elements in order to gain a competitive advantage starts the race. But once the other vessels join the competition by going out in perilous weather conditions, the competitive edge that motivated the first mover vanishes, while the risk of death for all of the fishers increases.  Thus, in the race to fish we can see how individuals attempting to act in their own interest, while responding to the actions of others attempting to do the same, can all end up worse off.

Is there any way out of this race to the bottom? Some authorities have replaced the overall quota with individual allocations to prevent such fierce competition.  Critics protest, however, that this solution does not live up to the free-market principles of American capitalism.  However, it is evident that the case of a totally free market for fishing (in which fishers and their customers do not pay the cost of replenishing the fish stock) is likely to lead to overfishing and ultimately the end of any kind of market for fishing. What if the rights of individual allocations were auctioned off in advance?



Adversarial ethics under the stars: competitive time-wasting in K-Ville

This is the inaugural post by Leonard Ng’eno and Michael McCreary.

Hours before this year’s basketball showdown in Cameron Indoor Stadium between consummate rivals Duke and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the chancellor of UNC—Holden Thorp—took an early swing at the Blue Devils by tweeting, “Our students are talking about the future and asking smart questions instead of wasting time sitting in a tent.”[1]

The Krzyzewskiville tradition involving hundreds of Duke undergraduates camping out for weeks in advance to get their single-square-foot claim on courtside real estate for one of the most highly anticipated events in all of sports has become iconic of both the institution and fandom at large.  Duke fans, or Cameron Crazies, are known for their intensity and are proud to serve as the “Sixth Man” on Duke’s squad, providing an added advantage for the home team which is soundly reflected in the record books.  As Duke undergraduates, we were obviously offended by Thorp’s cheap shot at our tradition, our team, and our friends, but after the initial sting began to fade we started to wonder: Was Thorp right?  Is spending a month in a tent in order to see a premier basketball game a waste of time?

We’ll let K-Ville residents speak for themselves as to whether or not their month outdoors was worth their while this year; the specific questions we wish to address are these: What is the function of K-Ville?  What are its shortcomings?  And is there a preferable alternative?

The necessitation of K-Ville comes from the foundational economic principles of supply and demand, where supply represents the limited number of seats available and demand represents the number of undergraduate students vying for those seats.  This excess demand creates the need for some filtration process to achieve equilibrium.  In effect, tenting at K-Ville serves as a kind of “price adjustment” mechanism, increasing the cost (not monetary, but physical) of attendance and as a consequence lowering the demand.

K-Ville, and lining up in general, functions from a deliberately adversarial point of view where many students are competing against one another for a limited number of seats.  The principal shortcoming of K-Ville is that very few students—including the ones who participate—enjoy sleeping out in the cold while concurrently paying for a nice, heated room: grades suffer, relationships are strained, and comfort is sacrificed.  Yet, it is K-Ville residents themselves who dictate their own fate.  Living in a tent is not, strictly speaking, a requirement of attending the game.  Admittance relies on a “first-come first-served” policy, and K-Ville residents are merely admitted because they are the first in line.

In this way, we can see how lining up poses a serious collective action problem; one which, according to Professor Joseph Heath, “can easily degenerate into a race to the bottom, in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.” While lining up early may be in one’s own self-interest in order to guarantee a spot, the inherently competitive move prompts others to line up earlier as well and can eventuate into months of waiting for hundreds of students.  On the other hand, if the amalgam of attendees turned up just an hour before the game, the result would be the same as if they had lined up in the same order months ago.

The primary problem in dodging this race to the bottom, however, is that there is no way to know who would commit to lining up first without going through the process genuinely (i.e. with every intent to sleep there for the entire duration).  It could be conceived that one year K-Ville residents decided to form a pact, after completely intending to stay there the whole time, that said they would each get in line in their set order an hour before the game and avoid camping out.  However, problems with this solution would be that there would be no way to prevent others from lining up during that time or to ensure that signatories of the pact would not break their oath.  Furthermore, such an agreement would, to some extent, undermine the legitimacy of the next year’s line, as some might line up with an expectation to make another pact while some might not line up at all, thinking that they could just outwit the people who make the pact this time around.  In essence, there doesn’t seem to be any way to artificially generate and ensure the results of the natural queuing process.

To tackle this problem, we need to reduce the demand for seats by setting up a fair competition that does not lead to a race to the bottom.  In arriving at our proposed solution, we took as a premise that a fair competition is one that favors those who want to go to the game the most (i.e. those who are willing to pay the highest price).  This premise is not only founded upon common marketplace ideas, but also seems to be the source of legitimacy for the existing queuing system.  Thus our method was to find some competitive system that would allow the most devoted students to demonstrate their fanaticism by paying a more productive and fun cost than standing in a line.  By definition, costs are rarely productive or fun (you aren’t going to reduce demand by giving people free candy), and so it took some thinking to come up with something, but in the end we were pleased with our solution.

We propose setting up a competition based on attendance of other Duke Athletics events.  Those who have attended the most Duke games, of any sport, would get priority for the seating to men’s basketball games, including the marquee matchup with UNC.  The university already has a system in place that rewards students for attending sporting events, called The Inferno.  We suggest that The Inferno be expanded to not only give points to students for attending games, but also to reward students with game seats when demand is expected to exceed supply. Thus by basing admittance to the Duke-UNC game on a student’s attendance at other Duke games, we avoid the race to the bottom result that forces students to camp out for longer and longer periods each season in order to attend one game.

[1] Thorp has since taken down the tweet and apologized.