Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy

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The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.

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The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.

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Does Society Favor Healthy Competitions?

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

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Joseph Heath’s effort to develop an adversarial ethic for business begins by noting some reasons why competitions―be they in business, in sports, or some other sphere of modern society―are ethically so puzzling. Basically, they are deliberately imposed collective action problems that are specifically designed to disincentivize cooperation and which often permit behavior that would, “. . . in other contexts, typically be regarded as anti-social.” (Heath 359) This sounds like a toxic brew, and it’s easy to see why competitions are often something we want to avoid. What’s puzzling is that, despite these features, many competitions are considered morally permissible and even desirable. But, “. . . why would society want to inflict this peculiar sort of collective action problem upon people?” (362)

Heath suggests an answer. He claims that “. . . the reason that ‘society’ favors competition in certain areas of life has everything to do with the externalities that are generated. The difference between healthy and unhealthy forms of competition is that, in the former case, the external benefits outweigh the losses incurred by the competitors, while in the latter case they do not.” (362)

Curiously, Heath illustrates this distinction by contrasting athletic training with the use of performance enhancing drugs, where the former characterizes healthy competitions and the latter unhealthy ones. He claims that training “. . . usually improves the athlete’s overall health, whereas performance enhancing drugs have serious adverse health effects in the long run.” (362) The reason this is puzzling is that Heath’s distinction between healthy and unhealthy competitions turns on all the externalities these competitions produce, not just their effects on participants. In fact, he explicitly defines positive externalities as “benefits to people other than those directly involved.” And while it’s true that the use of performance enhancing drugs constitutes a net harm for the competitors, whether or not it constitutes a net harm for society at large is anybody’s guess.

The example aside, what about Heath’s claim that society favors competitions on the basis of their externalities? Is this plausible? In my view, no. In fact, I think it’s so implausible that I doubt Heath actually wants to commit himself to it (his project certainly doesn’t require him to do so). But whether or not Heath holds it, this externality-based view is an interesting idea in it’s own right, so it’s worth discussing what’s wrong with it. Here are three problems.

First, there appear to be counterexamples: Gladiatorial combats, jousting, and flower wars were all objects of positive social attitudes in their time, but the huge costs they imposed on their participants and their debasing effect on spectators makes it hard to believe that they constituted healthy competitions in Heath’s sense. Contemporary counterexamples might include hunting, fishing, eating contests, and environmentally destructive economic competitions.

Admittedly, it’s hard to know that these really are counterexamples. That would require identifying all of the relevant externalities and accurately quantifying their value―hardly feasible tasks! But this gets to a more fundamental problem with the externality-based view: Given how difficult it is to determine the aggregate value of competitions’ externalities with any degree of precision, it’s just not plausible that society’s approval could accurately track whether or not they are healthy in Heath’s sense. How could social attitudes reliably gauge the outcome of such a complex calculation?

The third problem arises when the proposal is applied to competitions involving fans and spectators. Probably a substantial share (the bulk?) of the positive externalities generated by these competitions consists of their entertainment value. But to that extent, the claim that society favors competitions with positive externalities seems to get things backwards. It’s not that society favors competitions because they have positive externalities; rather, competitions have positive externalities because society favors them.  In that case, why society favors them remains an open question. I have no idea what the answer is, but I suspect that it’s much more variegated and messy than the externality-based view suggests.

All citations are from Heath’s “An Adversarial Ethic for Business: Or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder,” Journal of Business Ethics, 72.4 (Jun., 2007).

The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller

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Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.

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When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.

Are European Soccer Matches Won in Stadiums or in Boardrooms?

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Was it a goal or not? This question will forever cause a stir between English and German soccer fans. (Probably less of a stir for English fans since England were awarded the disputed goal in extra time of the 1966 World Cup final in Wembley Stadium: watch the disputed goal here, read about it here.) But this is not the only thing matter of debate between English and German soccer. Germans often complain that English football is just about money, finding a big sponsor, and less about sports and a fair competition.

Whenever we are talking about professional spectator sports there are always two overlapping competitions in play, so to speak. The one we are watching take place on the fields (court, ice, etc.) between the teams, and the one that goes on in the marketplace between rival businesses. The German complaint, in a nutshell, is that English football is driven too much by the pressures of the marketplace, and not enough by what the English fan’s themselves love to call “England’s game.”

In order to promote the sport over the marketplace, the German Bundesliga invented the “50+1 rule”. It says that clubs are allowed to compete in the Bundesliga only if they hold a majority of their own voting rights (50% + at least 1 additional vote; read more about the rule here.) By this rule the “on-field” sporting interests of a club should be protected from the “marketplace” economic interests of its investors. This way, financiers and businesses will be able to gain control over clubs and professional football teams. The Germans believe that this is exactly what has gone wrong with English football. For example, Manchester United is owned by the US-American business-family, Glazer. (You can read about the differences between English and German football policies in this BBC article from 2013.)

What does that mean for the sport? Is the competition in England and elsewhere unfairly manipulated by investors? Is it unfair that some clubs have wealthier or more generous investors than others? Does the German rule make it impossible for smaller teams to compete with the historic giants of the Bundesliga like Bayern Munich? Perhaps finding an investor is just part of the game if you really want to be able to compete on the field. Such are the dilemmas and paradoxes when two fundamentally different kinds of competitions – sports and markets – overlap so completely.

Is life just a competitive game?

In adversarial ethics, we need to be able to differentiate institutions that are adversarial from those that are not. But isn’t competition all around? In any social situation we can imagine there are mutual interests but also competing interests. In some areas like sports, markets, and electoral systems competition is clearly expressed. In others it is not. But that doesn’t mean that it is absent.

There are children competing against each other for the last piece of cake. You may fight against yourself on your daily running track. Even love is a competitive game as ABBA sing in their famous song “The Winner Takes It All”. (Watch the video of the song here.)

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The song tells the story of a jilted woman sadly looking back on a love affair and thinking about the new relationship of her ex. The songwriters used the game-metaphor to illustrate the competition in love. The woman in the song is the loser who is “standing small” and “has to fall”. She is the loser in the game against the woman she lost her boyfriend or husband to but also in the game with or against her boyfriend. There is “no more ace to play” – the game is over. Destiny plays a role in that game, too. It is personified by Gods throwing their dice and thereby deciding about the end of that relationship.

ABBA’s song was about the game of love. We don’t know whether they think all human activities are competitive because, well, they really only ever wrote songs about love. But still, doesn’t it seem plausible to believe that competition somehow plays a role in every situation we can imagine? Aren’t we naturally competitive? Isn’t that the reason why we have ethics and moral standards at all? Joseph Heath quotes Kurt Baier who says that being moral means “following rules designed to overrule self-interest whenever it is in the interest of everyone alike that everyone should set aside his interest”. This means, most ethics are there because we cannot all have what we want. They are used to solve collective action problems.

Sure, in some institutions like markets we try to encourage competitive behavior because people or costumers benefit from that competition. In others like a family we want to suppress it – but it is still around. This difference might be the most important distinction between adversarial and non-adversarial institutions. This means, in non-adversarial contexts (family, love etc.) we try to live by the principles of cooperation and even altruism. In adversarial institutions (markets, elections, sports etc.), however, moral ideals that are relevant in non-adversarial settings are forbidden. For example, cooperation between competitors might lead to price fixing. We justify the abandonment of these ideals in competitions by the benefits for the people who are not competing (the customers). The difference is thus different ethical and moral ideals.

 

On gaming the game

A fan-made video highlighting flagrant fouls on Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin has been going viral in the U.S., Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From a New York Times article on the video, which you can watch for yourself below:

Piecing together clips of Lin being whacked in the face, clotheslined, bleeding, tumbling to the floor — all without ever drawing a flagrant foul — Kuei tried to convey that Lin, an American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, was the victim of excessive physicality from opponents and insufficient protection from the league and its referees.

[…]

With its bruising simplicity, it revived questions about the fairness and consistency of officiating in the N.B.A. and led to conversations about latent racial biases. 

Fans of Lin, especially among the Asian community, have interpreted the video as evidence that Lin is being treated unfairly because of his race. I haven’t watched enough of the NBA to know whether this is true, though there does seem to be a pattern of referees not calling fouls on Lin in cases that are pretty clear-cut. Moreover, in the Times article, ESPN reporter Tom Haberstroh notes that “the 813 fouls that Lin had drawn over the past three seasons represented the highest total for a guard — and the third highest number for any position — without a flagrant foul, a particularly hard foul that can lead to an ejection.”

The video raises some interesting questions about buck-passing in unfair games. Suppose his race is a factor, due to referees’ explicit or implicit racial bias. Then, suppose opponents know referees won’t call fouls on them if they overstep their boundaries with Lin, so they take advantage of this fact to play more aggressively with him. This form of gaming the system would seem unsportsmanlike in most contexts, but part of professional sports (if not other leagues) is that playing to win is the dominant, and often overriding, motive for players. Playing to win often requires playing the refs. This is as much a part of the game as any official rule-bound move. For example, the practice of diving in professional soccer is the new normal.

In this context, I’m not sure if players would be wrong to shrug their shoulders and say “Blame the system” while clocking Lin in the face. But compare this to the question of individual responsibility for collectively caused racial problems in everyday life. Surely there’d be something seriously wrong there about passing the buck to “the system” when one could just refuse to play by the rules of an unfair game.

NCAA Bans Satellite Football Camps–Stops a Race to the Bottom

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A few weeks back I wrote a post titled: Michigan’s Harbaugh Rankles SEC Feathers With Spring Practices at Florida High School Recruit Factory. There I discussed how Michigan’s plan to hold spring practices (which have since taken place) at a high school in Florida upset many coaches and fans in the South Eastern Conference (SEC).

Today, the NCAA made a ruling on the use of camps. Mitch Sherman at ESPN writes:

The NCAA has shut down satellite camps, effective immediately, with a ruling Friday by the Division I Council that requires FBS programs to conduct all clinics at school facilities or facilities regularly used for practice or competition.

Satellite camps rose to prominence over the past year as several programs, notably Michigan and others from the Big Ten, conducted camps in the South and regions rich in recruiting prospects.

The ruling Friday is effectively a win for the the SEC and ACC, which had banned their coaches from working camps at destinations outside a 50-mile radius from their schools.

It seems that the NCAA has effectively stopped what may have become a race to the bottom (see my previous post). Perhaps it is also time the governing body addresses the geographic advantage in recruiting enjoyed by the SEC.