Blame the computer for corrupt college sports.

Ok, not proximately, but ultimately.

I sat in on a panel discussion yesterday that included, among others, Taylor Branch who has done excellent work on the corruption and money-grubbing in elite college athletic programs. Also present was Bill Friday, former UNC-system president and founding member of the Knight Commission.

There is a lot of discussion about solutions to the current problem. Branch is a supply-sider, favoring donning student athletes with professional status and letting the market set their salaries. Friday wants to target demand, and thinks students can remain amateur unpaid athletes if penalties on errant programs are sufficiently harsh.

Less coherent is the story of how we got here. We know at some point over the past several decades a collusion of fans, alumni, boards of trustees, and administrators at top schools all bowed to the temptation to turn college athletic programs into behemoths.

But don’t kid yourself that these people lived virtuously before. The temptation just wasn’t present because the structural conditions to make this kind of money in college sports were not there. Were Adam and Eve any less predisposed to sin before they saw the apple?

It’s no coincidence that the information age coincided with the college athletics arms race. All entertainment industries have seen enormous groundswells in profit potential as modern information technology increased avenues for fans all over the globe to watch and interact with entertainers. For sports, that meant more people flying into games, more lucrative tv contracts to stream games to larger audiences, more merchandise sales, more overall demand to watch the same players doing the same things they have always done.

This notion isn’t original, although no one seems to be incorporating it well into the college athletic program story — or at least people don’t focus on it. Maybe that’s because there’s little that can be done through human agency to fix that, but that fact alone should be informative. If you want a succinct summary of the premise, Yale economist Robert Shiller gets right to the point starting around 5:20 in the video below, which he refers to as the “winner-take-all-effect.”

This incentive is enormous. It’s a broader driver of globalization. Don’t kid yourself that humans are able to resist it. If you suddenly woke up tomorrow and realized that over the course of the night, the work you did could command a tenfold wage increase — no human capital investment or work hour increase required — you would take it.

There’s a well-known “presentist bias” among people. In general, today is much like yesterday, and so as our minds grasp for a heuristic, we assume as a general rule not to think tomorrow will be much different than today. Projecting our core assumptions about the state of the world when we wake up allows us to start our day in calm and comfort rather than in paralyzing uncertainty.

So even when athletic programs and boards of trustees and alumni make fateful decisions to alter the nature of elite college sports, even when they use the rhetoric of “game change”, few people assume on the margin that history has been dramatically affected. And on the margin, it usually hasn’t. But we all know “hindsight is 20/20”. We make decisions incrementally, always with a bias toward the present. We look back and reflect over the sum total of decisions, and it’s only then that we see the full impact.

I’m not seeking to exonerate those who were major contributors to turning college athletics into a system of labor exploitation and corrupt greed. If anything, the real tragedy here is not that college spots became so amazingly profitable, but that when entertainers around the world were reaping the benefits of the information age, college athletes were being unjustly left out.

I am saying that we often focus on the proximate players in the game without reflecting on the possibility of broader structural drivers of human behavior. Doing so often means missing out on the full scope and scale of the problem (if you see it as such), which means we’re sadly missing the forest through the trees.

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Challenging assumptions on public spending need.

“Given the depth of modern capital markets, the New Deal’s old argument that ‘only the government can afford this’ looks particularly weak. The New Deal edifice is solid enough, but it doesn’t form the best basis for the national future.”

— Amily Shlaes, The Forgotten Man.

Total $ Kickstarter plans to allocate this year: $150 MM.

Total $ the National Endowment for the Arts plans to allocate this year: $146 MM.

Creative accounting.

Jim Pethokoukis does some analysis of the Romney tax plan. There’s a lot to like. rates fall 20%, and all three levels see decreases. Lower corporate rates. Etc.

So Jim asks the question that comes to all of our minds: How do we pay for it? And he says:

And how would Romney pay for the tax cuts? Well, the revenue would come through a combination of faster economic growth and new limits placed on deductions, exemptions, and credits—particularly on higher-income Americans.

Blergh.

In a brief Twitter exchange, I asked Jim directly if he thought counting on higher growth was a smart way of accounting for revenue neutrality. His response was that a lot of taxes spur growth. And that’s true. So does government spending. But the actual multiplier is an evasive figure.

I have nothing against dynamic forecasting, but we have to understand that whatever assumption you bake into your model as to the effect of marginal rate decreases on GDP is going to get scrutinized, and there’s likely to be a great deal of evidence against it simply because it’s not a settled question. That’s problematic politically, but it also means you induce a lot of uncertainty into your own policy as the cost of easier accounting.

Additionally, there are plenty of exogenous factors which can affect GDP growth. We passed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and a tech bubble burst. They were not revenue neutral. In an alternate universe they might have spurred higher growth, but we will never see that universe. We can all speculate on what counterfactuals would look like but we will never know and we can’t experience it.

Now, it’s not easy to estimate gains from closing loopholes or higher rates or anything else, per se. There is always evasion and other externalities. People modify their behavior. But that to me means we ought to be more conservative in our assumptions, which by extension means we ought to do our accounting ceteris paribus as a means of minimizing downside risk. It also turns out that’s politically more defensible than assuming growth. Sadly, it’s less exciting to the base than sexy assumptions.

We design tax systems for both deontological and consequentialist reasons. Among them is equity, which is why we want them to be progressive and to contain as few loopholes as possible. Another is growth — the tax system should encourage the right (i.e. productive) kinds of economic behavior.

If you make the success of the tax proposal contingent on the realized gains of growth, then you are making yourself vulnerable to policy failure. If growth isn’t baked into the assumptions and you have revenue neutrality anyway, then you’re safer. Because if growth doesn’t happen, you can still say you accomplished enhanced equity without sacrificing fiscal conservatism. You’re getting some of your goals.

I harp on this because I feel that conservatives talk the talk of fiscal conservatism and low taxes but are not willing to make hard choices when those come into conflict, which undermines both of those laudable agendas.

Why you don’t want ASG.

Taking to the streets today. Hoping people will vote no on ASG participation.

Common objections I hear:

  1. You’re a senior, you don’t have a dog in this fight.
    Yes, which means, with respect to the cost of the decision, I am least biased in my thinking. I literally will have nothing to do with ASG ever again and will pay $0.00 to it in the future.
  2. We have to pay our dollar anyway!
    First, it might be possible that only through being a first mover on this can we ever stand a chance of freeing our dollar. Even if that’s not the case, the dollar is sunk no matter what. All things being equal, would we want to spend a dollar and have to deal with inept people in far-flung parts of the state, or spend a dollar and do whatever the hell we want with our time? This is a basic opportunity cost assessment.
  3.  We have to try to make ASG work.
    No, we don’t.
  4. ASG, if made to work, would allow all students in the system to speak with one, powerful voice.
    This is the preachy romantic retort. It has a huge caveat that has no reasonable prospect of success. But let’s get real: ASG drags down big schools like UNC-CH and pulls up little schools like UNC-P. It’s a great equalizer that allows students administrators REALLY don’t care to hear from to get voice because they’re signed on with students administrators are marginally interested in talking to. To that end, even if we solved the collective action problem, it would mean that we (UNC-CH) basically subsidize clout to lessers. Why would we want that when we could shove the nuisance aside and speak up for ourselves and our specific institutional interests?

Altruism?

If you want to support other people’s education, cut the state a check or go buy lotto tickets. 

Yes this is very cold. But only fault me if the logic isn’t there.

Details, details.

From William McGurn, who somehow maintains employment at the Wall Street Journal:

When Barack Obama was campaigning for president in 2008, he declared that marriage is between a man and a woman. For the most part, his position was treated as a nonissue.

Now Rick Santorum is campaigning for president. He too says that marriage is between a man and a woman. What a different reaction he gets.

From Wikipedia:

In an interview with the Associated Press (AP) taped on April 7, 2003,[1] and published April 20, 2003, Santorum stated that he believed mutually consenting adults do not have a constitutional right to privacy with respect to sexual acts. Santorum described the ability to regulate consensual homosexual acts as comparable to the states’ ability to regulate other consensual and non-consensual sexual behavior, such as adultery, polygamy, child molestationincest, and bestiality, whose decriminalization he believed would threaten society and the family, as they are not monogamous and heterosexual.

I want to believe Barack Obama is being disingenuously cool on supporting gay marriage. But I don’t give him any points in spite of withholding that support. Neither does Dan Savage, btw. Until stated otherwise, he is against civil equality for gay Americans and no one on the left should think otherwise. So McGurn isn’t completely wrong.

Still, McGurn wants you to think there’s a double standard. To an extent, there may be. But I don’t want the media to treat equally a man (Obama) whose passivity isn’t helping my cause versus a man (Santorum) whose bigotry is actively seeking to undermine my liberty.

Aborting.

So this sort of sums it up right here.

I think libertarians are, mostly, utilitarians. Because of that, I think we’re more inoculated against culture wars than the left and right. That is, it’s easier for us to spy an instance when actual social welfare is being thrown under the bus to score political points on core values issues.

Previously and presently, before the past few days and now starting again today, you couldn’t donate the Susan G. Komen without accepting a package deal: some of your money goes to an organization that provides about 300K abortions every year. Yes, Planned Parenthood does a lot more than that. But PP knows full well that it has fashioned itself as the left’s symbolic bastion against pro-life forces. As SGK, having that organization attached to you can be and probably is bad business.

What SGK did the past several days (regardless of whatever the real motivation happened to be), was to decouple that. Instantly, consumers had more choice. They could donate to one, the other, or both (or neither). It doesn’t even take an elegant economic theory to articulate how much better this is for people seeking to donate to charitable causes.

PP supporters came out and made up the entire shortfall in a couple of days. SGK was likely to increase its donations by getting conservatives who were proud of their decision. Either way, that 680K taken from PP was going to go to providing actual mammograms. What a win for women’s health, right?

What we learned from this is that, in the culture wars, maximizing welfare is really only the goal insofar as the totems’ egos of the respective movements are not bruised. PP mobilized the forces of the left to excoriate SGK and bully that organization into giving back its dollars. The left often fashions itself as more rational than those whiny, emotional, reactionary conservatives. We learned that in fact this is quite untrue from the completely bogus left-propagated narrative that SGK hates poor women, is unconcerned with their health and their reproductive liberty. None of this, in my mind, constitutes a remotely rational inquiry into the actual effect of SGK’s policy change on women’s health, which is the ostensible end goal of both these organizations.

PP doesn’t need the money, but it’s getting it. Make no mistake, PP bullied 2/3 of a million dollars away from some other women’s health program that was going to actually provide mammograms for people. To top it off, we’re back to the sub-optimal package deal for SGK donors.

The real loser today is women’s health.