Monthly Archives: February 2011

Sh-Boom, maybe life isn’t a game

We can’t understand what might be special about the regulation of, and ethics within, adversarial institutions unless we can get a clear idea of what analogous non-adversarial versions of those institutions might be like. It helps to be able to contrast a sport like gymnastics with an art form like modern dance; or to compare inquisitorial legal systems with those that structure a competition between the prosecution and the defense; to think about the relative merits of benevolent dictators and democratically elected leaders (and to think hard about which category we would want to stick Mike Bloomberg in).

In the previous post, we see the economist Milton Friedman almost instinctively assuming that life in general is but a game or sport. But lest we forget, this is not the way most poets have thought about life. The 1954 doo-wop classic, “Sh-boom,” comes to mind. You can find all you need to know about the song here.

There doesn’t appear to be anything especially adversarial about the Crew Cuts’ vision of life as a dream.

Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)

If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)

If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love

Life could be a dream, sweetheart

I mean, the singer doesn’t even seem to be concerned about the possibility of a rival with whom the sweetheart might possibly find an even dreamier life. Of course, it is all rather hypothetical. Life could be a dream. Maybe that’s because he currently experiences it as game (like the similarly crew-cut Milton Friedman) or… a battlefield.

 

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For Milton Friedman, life is but a game, sweetheart

(Note: This is the inaugural post by “tiaramer.”)

One big open question for those thinking about ethics in deliberately adversarial institutions concerns how literally or directly we can transplant the vocabulary of sports to other domains. Are markets, for example, just games, or just like games, or only metaphorically and very imperfectly like games?

For Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, this question doesn’t seem very open at all. He seems to take it as obvious that not only markets, but life in society in general, is very similar in structure to a game.

The day-to-day activities are like the actions of the participants in a game when they are playing it; the framework, like the rules of the game they play. And just as a good game requires acceptance by the players both of the rules and of the umpire to interpret and enforce them, so a good society requires that its members agree on general conditions that will govern relations among them, on some means of arbitrating different interpretations of these conditions, and on some device for enforcing compliance with the generally accepted rules. As in games, so also in society, most of the general conditions are the unintended outcome of custom, accepted unthinkingly. At most, we consider explicitly only minor modifications in them, though the cumulative effect of a series of minor modifications may be a drastic alteration in the character of the game or of the society. In both games and society also, no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions; unless that is, there is a broad underlying social census. But we cannot rely on custom or on census alone to interpret and enforce the rules; we need an umpire. These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify the rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules,  and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, p. 25; emphasis added)

So for Friedman we willingly, and usually unthinkingly, accept many of these “rules of the game” although we may not know their origins. And if we don’t, there is always an “umpire” there to enforce them anyway!

But his thorough-going acceptance of the direct parallel between good games and good societies raises more questions than it answers. Even if markets can be quite game-like, what does it mean for life in general to be compared to a game? Are we talking about the same kind of “goodness” when we think about a “good game” and a “good society”? Does a “good” society really require acceptance of rules by all of the citizens?

And what if you don’t want to “play” any more? Is it even possible to pick up your bat and ball and go home?

 

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.

Politicians and Professors

Some professors go into politics. Some politicians later become professors. But is there any reason to think the rules of the two “games” should be the same?

See this article by David D. Perlmutter, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Why Politicians Should Be More Like Professors. Perlmutter points out that President Barack Obama has sometimes been accused of being “too professorial.” But just what, asks (Professor!) Perlmutter, is wrong with that? He suggests several ways in which it might actually be good if politicians adopted a more professorial demeanor. His final suggestion is that politicians need to be more like professors in their willingness to work together to solve shared problems. “More than in any other trade, professors will sit down, work together with people with whom they hold deep ideological differences, and get the job done.” As for politicians: “It’s fine to be partisan about ideas,” he says, “but governing must be collaborative.”

By way of prescient rebuttal, see this piece by our friend (and sometime professor) Andrew Potter, writing in the Ottawa Citizen: Gangster Politics.

In a philosophical debate, what everyone involved is trying to get at is the truth. As a result, each party has a vested interest in the discussion remaining as rational and free of bias as possible. Even better, the truth is what economists call a “non-rival good” – many people can partake in the truth at the same time without anyone’s share being diminished.

In contrast, what is at stake in the political realm is not truth but power, and power (unlike truth) is a “rival good” – one person or group can wield power only at the expense of another.

Unfortunately, the very essence of politics makes partisanship inevitable….

In general, if you’re going to propose new norms for a game, it’s good to have a clear understanding of what is really at stake in that particular game, first.

Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it

Should women lacrosse players be required to wear helmets? Should people be allowed to text and drive?

We learn a lot about the dynamics of regulation in deliberately adversarial institutions by looking at the social-science laboratories known as sports. The guardians of heavily regulated competitions in sports and life are presented with an irresistible solution whenever systematic “issues” arise within their contests: tweak the rules.

The guardians of a sport or, say, an industry, get to “play god” with it. But as any fan of science fiction knows all-too-well, those playing god, or accused of playing god, tend to lack god’s omniscience. They have a hard time foreseeing the dynamic consequences of their rule-tweaking. This is especially true when putative solutions involve simple technological fixes. Game-players excel by using strategic rationality, so rule-changes will change behavior, but not always in the direction the regulators intend.

Across the sporting world, the past year has been the Year of the Concussion. The Onion recently satirized the trend with its article on “Puppy Bowl Marred by Tragic Spinal Injury.”

The injury, which occurred only minutes before the Kitty Halftime Show, followed a routine midfield burst of play. Slow-motion footage from the sideline and water-dish cameras show Alvin romping flat out down the sidelines before taking a risky crossing route to come at the football from an angle, at which point two larger puppies, Amy, a golden retriever, and Big Red, a 13-week-old shepherd mix, laid a massive hit on Alvin, who responded with a shrill yelp that was suddenly and ominously cut off.

Dark stuff.

But if competitors can use strategic rationality, so can regulators. A fascinating case study is going on right now in NCAA women’s lacrosse. Unlike their male counterparts (who play a vicious, gladiatorial game), the women play with speed, finesse, and without helmets. And sure enough, they get concussions. A lot of concussions.

Simple solution: make them wear helmets. Or not. As the New York Times reports in a provocative article entitled A Case Against Helmets in Lacrosse, many inside the sport believe that introducing helmets would simply lead to more violent or reckless play — and thus to more head injuries, not fewer.

“It’s hard to absolutely prove, but what we’ve seen is that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected, especially when it comes to the head and helmets,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, Princeton’s director of athletic medicine services and chairwoman of the U.S. Lacrosse safety committee. “They tend to put their bodies and heads in danger that they wouldn’t without the protection. And they aren’t as protected as they might think.”

Of course, this does not show that every regulatory impulse is misguided. Automobile makers resisted installing seat belts for years, and did not work on designing more effective seat belts until relatively late in the game. Eventually, they were forced by regulators in the 1960s and 70s to make seat belts mandatory. But even then many dissenters continued to argue that belts would cause more harm than good: that it would be better to be “thrown clear” of the crash, than trapped inside it. (Yes, thrown clear at, say, 60 mph…into on-coming traffic.) Studies would eventually prove the effectiveness of good seat belts, and by the 1980s their use was becoming mandatory in most jurisdictions. It is doubtful that seat belts led to drivers becoming more reckless because they now felt safer and less prone to injury — though that has surely happened in hockey and American football.

Still, consequences of regulating are often unforeseen and perverse. Not least when the “players” do not observe the spirit of the new rules. There is clear evidence that texting while driving is extremely dangerous. More dangerous than illegal levels of alcohol in the driver’s blood. So many jurisdictions have banned texting while driving. Sensible? Sure. Has it reduced accidents? No: in an effort to escape detection, people are now texting in their laps rather than up over the wheel (where they can hope to see traffic in their peripheral vision), and texting-related accidents are on the rise.

“Tim Duncan Urges All-Stars To Use Inside Voice During Game”

The headline above was from The Onion last week. Like most articles in the satirical newspaper and website that calls itself “America’s Finest News Source,” the headline contains as much punch as the article that follows.

If you found it mildly funny (as, presumably, the 300 or so people who tweeted it directly from the site did), why? What is the underlying “truth” that the joke is riffing off?

Could it be that it’s playing on our instinctive, but usually inarticulate, understanding of the difference between ethics in “everyday” contexts, on the one hand, and ethics in “competitive” contexts, on the other?

In everyday contexts we teach children how to use “indoor voices” so they will not bother or annoy other people they are sharing space with. Like much of everyday ethics, it is designed to facilitate cooperation and solve collective-action problems (or in this case, collectively-sharing-space problems). You show respect for others, and make things go better for them, by piping down in their proximity.

But the last thing we want in a sports arena is for everyone to be using their indoor voices and sitting on their hands. Indeed, as discussed by student bloggers on this very blog recently (here and here), rowdy home-side spectators are part of the attraction and entertainment-value of sports for everyone. Even when that crowd noise is deliberately trying to help your team, and distract or demoralize the visitors, we all think that is perfectly acceptable from an ethical point of view. (Which is not to deny that there are limits to what kind of fan behavior is acceptable, as the previous posts emphasized.)

The great thing about satire is that it captures all of that in a headline or a caption. It takes a philosopher to spend 300 words sucking all the fun out of it.

Jump quickly over the gap

Following from the aesthetic analysis of business cartoons in the previous post, here’s another old chestnut on the same theme.

(This comic is reposted without permission and will be removed upon request.)