Archive for the Category Social trends


Too much of a good thing is boring

America keeps getting richer, but it doesn’t seem to be making us happier. There is an epidemic of depression among the young, and suicide rates keep soaring to new highs. I’m going to argue that the main problem is the 3-point shot, which is a long shot in the game of basketball, for those who don’t follow sports. This is what’s making us unhappy. Obviously you’ll need to bear with me on this one.

The three point shot occurs from behind a line about 22 feet from the basket, which was added to spice up the game back around 1980.  For years, the shot was rarely used.  When I was 30 years old, the two most exciting plays in basketball were the 3-point shot and the slam dunk.  The successful completion of these shots gave you the same feeling as three cherries at the slot machine in Vegas.  But like an explanation point in literature, these two exciting shots lose much of their impact if overused.  And they are increasingly overused.

After the Golden State Warriors achieved great success by loading up on skilled three point shooters, other teams saw that this was the way to go.  The game was further “hacked” by the Houston Rockets, who realized that you could have one highly skilled player control the ball, and either drive to the basket or take a three pointer.  The other four would stand around at the three point line.  James Harden was too skilled to be guarded with one player, so he’d either score a layup at the basket, or, if defended with two players, he’d pass to an open teammate to shoot a three pointer.  Rinse and repeat.  I wouldn’t say that basketball became boring, but it’s much less interesting.

My team hired a new coach this year, who realized that the mediocre Milwaukee Bucks team from last year could become much better by adopting this approach, even though the Bucks are not particularly talented, except for one player.  I read that in November, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first team in NBA history to shoot over 60% from two point range for an entire month (excluding October, when few games are played.)  This is because Milwaukee figured that the optimal strategy was to either drive to the basket or shoot threes.  No “midrange” shots.  Their three point shooters are not particularly talented, but the odds favor that shot so strongly that the other team still must guard the 4 players at the three point line, and no one in the universe can guard Giannis close to the basket.  As a result, this season he’ll blow by the NBA record for slam dunks by a wide margin.  (For foreign readers, imagine they made the net in football (soccer) twice as large, and allowed players to use their hands–that’s the impact of the three point shot.)

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the greatest basketball coach of all time, and he’s horrified by what’s happened to his sport as a result of the three point shot:

I hate it, but I always have,” Popovich said of the shot. “I’ve hated the three for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time [and say] if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the three, they’ll really like the four. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

His championship team from 5 years ago featured the most aesthetically beautiful style of play ever seen in any American team sport, deploying a wide range of approaches.  Now it’s nonstop drive to the basket and score, or toss it out for a three pointer, over and over and over.

Do you see what we did?  The NBA noted that three pointers were lots of fun for fans, and thought that increasing them 10-fold would increase the fun 10-fold.  But it didn’t happen.  It’s as if baseball moved the fences in 100 feet to have lots more home runs.

Or—and this is where I finally get around to explaining why we are so unhappy—as if you made it so that all our desires were right at our fingertips.  No more unpleasant surprises in foreign travel; you’ll surf the internet and know exactly what to expect before you leave home!  You can also use the internet to do research on your date, before going out with him or her.  No messy surprises. No more need to browse through an old bookstore; it’s all on Amazon.  No need to trek out to the movie theatre and wait expectantly for the new Star Wars, it’s all on your big HDTV.  Remember when eating at a Thai or sushi restaurant was a thrill?  Remember when it stopped being a thrill?  Remember why it stopped being a thrill?

Last night I saw Anthony Bourdain’s final episode on CNN.  He revisited the Lower East Side of New York, where he used to buy drugs when he was young.  By modern standards, the Lower East Side circa 1980 was a nightmarishly awful place, and yet he and the people that he interviewed longed for the wild and messy world they had lost.  He seemed like someone who had lost interest in the modern world.

I’m not a Luddite who is opposed to change, indeed there are lots of rule changes I’d like to see in sports—starting with no instant replays by referees. (Remember, it’s a zero sum game.)  But we need to be careful that we don’t assume that just because X is pleasurable, 10X will be 10 times as pleasurable.

Election observations

A few observations on the election:

1.   Focus on the referenda.  Marijuana was legalized in Michigan, by a fairly wide margin.  This suggests that it’s only a matter of time before other Midwestern states follow suit.  Legalization failed in North Dakota, which doesn’t bode well for  . . .  South Dakota?  Voters approved medical marijuana in Missouri and Utah.  Minimum wages continue to be highly popular, even in red states, while expanded rent control failed in California by 62-38.  Go figure.   I actually voted for a tax increase (on gasoline), and it was approved.

2.  Conservatives continue to push for expanded Obamacare, as three more deep red states voted for Medicaid expansion, which was part of the original Obamacare. The GOP insists that Obamacare represented the socialization of health care, but somehow forgot to repeal it.  And now it’s growing with support from GOP voters.

3.  Colorado voters rejected progressive income taxes.  Voters in other blue states like Massachusetts and Washington had previously rejected progressive income taxes.  Progressives should just give up; it’s a bad idea.  Instead, institute a progressive payroll tax.

4.  The election was not actually a referendum on Trump, although it’s being interpreted that way.  The Dems won the popular vote by about 9%, which suggests the public opinion polls were broadly correct.  Betting markets don’t show much change in the odds of Trump being re-elected (currently 38%.)  I actually don’t think Dems should be all that pleased with those odds, as the leading Democratic possibilities at Betfair all look like losers to me.  (Except Biden—and I doubt he’ll get the nomination.  He would have won in 2016.)  They need to nominate someone who can win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

5. I voted for a left wing Democrat in CA-45 district, who appears to have lost.  But I’m fine with that, as I only voted for her to get a House that would investigate Trump—the only issue that mattered to me.   I don’t like the idea of a President who is above the law, as has been the case since Trump took office.  I recall how the GOP was willing to hold Nixon to account back in 1974, and am disgusted by the spinelessness of the modern GOP.

It would actually be doing Trump a favor for Congress to subpoena his taxes, allowing him to fulfill his campaign promise to release the tax returns.  The Dems may pass some bad legislation, but if it becomes law I’ll blame Mitch McConnell, who now has tight control of the Senate.  After doing nothing to fix our country over the past 8 months, I’m expecting a bunch of foolish big government legislation from the GOP Senate.

6.  I was glad to see Brat lose in Virginia.  In retrospect, his upset win in 2014 was a signal of the GOP’s descent into Trumpism.  Sad to see Steve King re-elected by the voters in Iowa.  A state that voted strongly for Dukakis in 1988 (when California went for Gerald Ford Bush) is now so right wing that they elected a white nationalist anti-Semite with views too noxious for even the National Review.  Also glad to see the GOP’s most notorious Putin supporter (in my very own Orange County) likely went down to defeat.

7.  Only 13 districts voted for both Romney and Clinton, and I live in one of those districts.  I’m pretty sure that you’d find the more numerous districts that went Obama then Trump are on average dumber that the Romney/Clinton districts, even though both types are swing (purple) areas.  There’s a logical explanation for going Romney then Clinton.  There is no logical explanation for going Obama then Trump.

8. The Dems need to adopt a “patriotism, not nationalism” theme. I associate nationalism with European politics: protectionism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and bigotry against Jews, Roma and Muslims.  In America, the bigotry is usually directed against Mexicans, Muslims, and blacks.  A true patriot supports Americans of all ethnicities, and favors free trade and expanded immigration.  Imagine where America would be today without all the immigration of earlier decades, which was opposed by the nationalists of the 19th and early 20th century.  David Brooks has a recent column where he claims to be a nationalist, but he’s actually describing patriotism:

Donald Trump says he is a nationalist, but you can’t be a nationalist if you despise half the nation — any more than you can be a good father if you despise half your children. You can’t be a nationalist if you think that groups in the nation are in a zero-sum conflict with one another — class against class, race against race, tribe against tribe.

Perhaps Brooks is not familiar with how the term ‘nationalism’ has actually been used over the past 100 years.  It’s all about zero-sum thinking, us vs. them.  Reminds me of millennials who say they favor “socialism”; you know, like in Denmark.  🙂

Cheesecake dreams

I came across some interesting tidbits while putting together a post on LA mass transit over at Econlog, which I’ll share with you over here.

1.  It seems that in today’s election the affluent neighborhood of Eagle’s Landing will try to secede from the majority black city of Stockbridge, Georgia.  (BTW, don’t read “black” as poor and “affluent” as white.  Stockbridge is not a poor city, and a substantial number of affluent blacks live in Eagle’s Landing.)  What caught my eye is the motivation for this attempt at secession:

The Eagle’s Landing plan seeks to merge into its boundaries the primest real estate and wealthiest households from the city of Stockbridge, leaving behind a smaller, mostly African American population with fewer resources to pay for Stockbridge city services. The Eagle’s Landing city proposal will be voted on via ballot referendum on November 6, but Stockbridge residents who live outside the Eagle’s Landing footprint—the people who will be most hampered by the division—are not eligible to vote on it. Meanwhile, neither lawsuits nor letters from global finance agencies warning that the proposal could wreck economies across Georgia have been able to stop it.

And the reason for tearing Stockbridge apart to start this new city? It has something to do with cheesecake. Or at least cheesecake is what was emphasized in a conversation with Vicki Consiglio, the chair of the Committee for the City of Eagle’s Landing, held at the Eagle’s Landing Country Club.

 “I serve on the Henry County zoning board,” said Consiglio, “and so I kept seeing all of these places like Bojangle’s, Waffle Houses, dollar stores, and all this going up in our county. And I was like, why can’t we get a Cheesecake Factory, or a P.F. Chang’s or a Houston’s? We have areas that have high incomes, so what’s the deal?” . . .

According to Consiglio, The Cheesecake Factory did consider coming to Stockbridge at one point, but balked after an income study revealed that the average median income was too low to justify placing a restaurant there. Consiglio blames this on Stockbridge, where median household income is $54,769. So in 2016, Consiglio and her neighborhood colleagues, some of them former Stockbridge city officials, began meeting to figure out what they could do to land if not a Cheesecake Factory, then a Cheesecake Factory-esque restaurant, because the dining halls and pubs in the country club would no longer do.

I’m sure Tyler Cowen or Scott Alexander could find a witty title for this story, but I’m sort of speechless.  Any attempt on my part would (already has?) come across as condescending.  BTW, there actually is a serious economic story here, relating to questions such as who absorbs Stockbridge’s bond obligations.

As an aside, I like key lime cheesecake–how’s that for bad taste! 

2.  Last week my wife and I drove through LA’s skid row neighborhood, which has an extremely dense concentration of homeless people.  This is by far the poorest neighborhood I’ve ever seen while traveling throughout the US.  Just a few miles away you have the ultra rich suburb of Beverly Hills.  But here’s what I find surprising, the difference in poverty rates between Skid Row and Beverly Hills is less than I would have imagined.  Beverly Hills is 10.2% poor while Skid Row is 41.8% poor.

You may be asking, “What’s so confusing out that; Skid Row is 4 times more poor, exactly what’s you’d expect.”  No, I get that it’s poorer; I’m surprised the gap is not even larger.  If you asked me to guess, I might have estimated that Beverly Hills was 2% to 4% poor—a few live-in nannies, plus the odd 30-year old living in his parents’ basement, while Skid Row was 80% poor.  I’m surprised the gap is not even larger.

I’m too lazy to do the research, but is there some sort of national tendency for poverty rates to cluster close to the national average of 14%, regardless of how rich or poor a neighborhood is?

3.  LA’s homeless problem got me thinking about the today’s rent control referendum in California.  Obviously, I oppose all rent controls.  At the same time, I doubt that rent controls are a major cause of homelessness.  Think about the following three groups of people:

a.  My daughter, and 5 other UCLA students who share two small rooms and one bath in a dorm.

b.  Six illegal immigrants from Fujian who share a single room in a Chinatown apartment building, work in a restaurant, and send money home.

c.  Six homeless men living in tents on LA sidewalks.

While LA’s housing policies undoubtedly make things a bit more difficult for the homeless, I’m really having trouble seeing how they could be a major cause of the problem.  Around here, fast food restaurants are desperate to get unskilled labor, even at a starting wage of $13.50/hour ($27,000/year.)  Now you may argue that $27,000/ year is a pretty low income in LA’s housing market.  But that’s entirely missing the point.  At no time in all of human history has it been assumed that poor people would be able to afford to live alone.  The expectation has always been that lower income people will live in groups, to spread housing costs.  If you have 4 people making $27,000/year, their combined income is easily large enough to share a decent LA apartment.  Lots of young professionals share apartments in California.

Please don’t read this post as offering advice to homeless people.  I understand that they may not be able to do what I suggest in the post.  My actual point is entirely different—homelessness has very little to do with high housing costs.  The reasons why it might be hard for 4 homeless people to get jobs flipping hamburgers and then share an apartment have little to do with cost; rather there are other more complex social issues.  Maybe some have drug issues that make it hard to hold a job.  Maybe some have mental health issues that make it hard to live with roommates.  Maybe they face discrimination from landlords. I could imagine any number of reasons why it’s hard to get housing.  What I can’t imagine is how any of this could be fixed by building more housing.  If I’m missing something here, please enlighten me.

Why lies matter

After the Berlin Wall came down, there was a brief period of liberalism in Eastern Europe:

The contemporary left disdains the open society as a neo-liberal capitalist dream; the right fears its skepticism toward tradition. But for the last five decades, most of America and Europe’s prosperity and peace have been based on an open society consensus, which for a brief moment after the end of the Cold War, it looked like Western thinkers like Soros had succeeded in importing to Eastern Europe. Markets opened to foreign investors. In 1991, Soros founded the Central European University with campuses in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest, a US-funded education center committed to critical thought and the study of democracy. Ironically, given recent developments, the CEU’s headquarters moved from Prague to Budapest when the Hungarian government of the time appeared more welcoming than the Czech.

Today it’s getting much darker in Eastern Europe:

That was then. The current Hungarian government, as Guy Verhofstadt wrote earlier this month, is probably the most illiberal and authoritarian in Europe, shutting down newspaperscorruptly capturing major facilities like water and energy, wrenching control of cultural and educational centers. Just like d’Souza, Barr and Trump Jr., the Hungarian government attacks Muslim migrants and Soros. During last spring’s election, when I was last in Hungary, you couldn’t turn without spotting the ruling Fidesz party advertisements, which featured crude photoshopped images of Soros personally cutting open the Hungarian border fences designed to keep out Muslim migrants. Like most authoritarian regimes, the Hungarian government inspires loyalty by stoking the fires of ethnic supremacy. Hungary, which spent centuries fighting the Ottoman Turks, has seen itself as Europe’s border with Islam since long before the current migrant crisis. The American alt-right laps up this talk of a clash of civilizations.

I know that some people think that it doesn’t matter if people lie about George Soros, if the President’s son calls him a Nazi collaborator.  All that matters (in their view) is corporate tax cuts.  In the short run it might seem like that is true, but in the long run you might say that honesty is all that matters.  A society built on lies will inevitably abandon liberalism.

Lies are a way of dehumanizing individuals like George Soros.  Once they are dehumanized, it’s much easier for troubled people to justify violence against them, or indeed against entire ethnic groups.  Hitler dehumanized the Jews through lies, and Mao dehumanized the rich through lies.  And that’s why for me there is only one overriding issue in the midterm elections.  Lies.  Yes, Hungary and Poland are still a long way from the 1930s, and America is further still, but I’d rather not experiment with how far this demagoguery can be pushed before causing major harm.  The risks are too great.

Two big egos

Imagine a leader with an enormous ego and a devoted fan club, who frequently behaves in a reckless and irresponsible fashion.  He sends out tweets full of bizarre and irresponsible attacks on other people, and also misrepresents important financial information, which misleads various stakeholders.

What should we do with a leader like this?

I guess the answer depends on where they work.  If they work in the private sector, then they need to be punished for their bad behavior, perhaps by the SEC.  If they work in the executive branch . . . well, you can guess.

PS.  Make that three big egos—look who The Economist thinks has a good chance to become the next British Prime Minister:

Mrs May might well win such a vote, if only because Mr Johnson is so unpopular among Tory MPs. His problem is not just that the majority of Tory MPs voted “remain” in the referendum, and hate him as leader of the Brexiteers. MPs of all political persuasions regard him as a cad. One senior Tory says that “it’s 100% inconceivable that he’ll become leader of the Conservative Party…He’s a media clown, not a serious politician.” “He’s a shit who doesn’t give a shit about anything but himself,” says another. The list of charges against him is long: he doesn’t believe in anything but his own advancement; he doesn’t lift a finger to help his colleagues; he was a disaster as foreign secretary.

He has one big thing going for him, in the eyes of most Tory MPs: his performance at the polls. When he won two terms as mayor of Labour-leaning London he was praised for possessing the “Heineken factor”—the ability to reach parts of the country that other Tories couldn’t reach. . . .

But should Mrs May lose a confidence vote, Mr Johnson has a good chance. The two further hurdles are probably superable. He has to get onto a shortlist of two MPs that the parliamentary party sends to the party’s 124,000 members, and then he has to win the membership’s support.

On the first, the Brexiteers, who include not just the ERG but other eurosceptics, have enough votes to get one of their own onto the final shortlist, and are likely to coalesce behind Mr Johnson. Jacob Rees-Mogg, their leader, has already said that he thinks that Mr Johnson would make an excellent prime minister.

On the second, Tory party members like Mr Johnson more than Tory MPs do—and are getting keener with every suicide-vest jibe.

Could a conservative politicians who is hated by his elite of own party (but not the voters), who acts like a buffoon, and who likes to make outrageous attacks on a top female politician, actually become the leader of the UK?  Stranger things have happened.  Eventually every country in the world will elect a buffoonish nationalistic leader.  And then the world can pick up where it left off in the 1930s, before that unfortunate detour into the UN, EU, IMF, WTO, World Bank, NATO, NAFTA and all those other institutions that ruined everything accomplished during 1914-45, the golden age of nationalism.

PPS.  Speaking of big egos, a victim of the MeToo movement has just died:

  • Dennis Hof, the notorious pimp and Republican candidate for Nevada’s state assembly, died hours after a combination 72nd birthday party/campaign rally attended by GOP tax fighter Grover Norquist, recent Trump pardon recipient Sheriff Joe Arpaio and porn movie legend Ron Jeremy.
  • Hof died at the Love Ranch, one of his legal Nevada brothels, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. Another brothel of his, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, was made famous by the HBO show “Cathouse.”
  • Multiple former prostitutes had accused him of sexual assault, but prosecutors did not file charges against Hof, who denied the claims.

As you’d expect, he was highly popular with evangelical voters.