Sports and Capitalism

So I’m fat.

Like, fat fat, not fat fat fat.

Since High School, I’ve put on about a hundred pounds.

This is tough for me, because I was always athletic growing up (I played basketball in high school and ran track in college…sigh…now I can’t even run…).

Anyway, so I’ve recently recommitted myself to going to the gym, which has made me think about what a great example of capitalism sports is, and how underutilized this metaphor is for teaching youngsters what capitalism is all about.

For those who are new to my blog, my working definition of capitalism is “the voluntary transformation of raw materials into finished products,” which I think is at least as good as any other definition out there.

So in sports, everyone kind of starts out as these useless lumps of raw material, which, in and of themselves, are not particularly helpful in the given situation.

Being tall is helpful in basketball, but there are tons of examples of tall people who turned out to be terrible at the sport, because a raw material is never as useful as a finished good.

Instead, the raw material of our mortal coil must be transformed, often through hard work, dedication, and study, into something more suitable for the task at hand.

Nobody is born being good at shooting free throws.

Sure, there are some people whose genetics lend themselves to being easier to transform into athletes than others, but there are also some fruits that lend themselves better for making pies than others.  Just as a good chef can make something edible out of something disgusting like a filthy, gross fig, any human can build up his body into good physical condition.

So, there’s the raw material aspect being changed into a finished product.  This is easy for kids to understand.  They can see that the kids who spend the most time playing basketball become the kids who are the most talented at basketball.  They can see that the kids who put in the most work in gym class end up getting the most out of it.

They’re not dumb, you know, they’re just young.  They can put 2 and 2 together.

The next good aspect of capitalism represented in sports is creative destruction.  That is to say, capitalism involves an awful lot of failures before a spectacular success can be achieved (the ballpoint pen is a good example of how many failures a simple idea has to go through before someone gets it right).

Businesses have to open and close.  Ideas have to be created, tested, and either accepted or rejected before the cycle starts again.  This dynamism represents a kind of communal machine learning wherein better ideas replace less efficient ones.

The same is true in sports.  Practice is the heart of any athletic endeavor, and practice is essentially just an organized regimen of failures.  Every time a hitter misses the ball, every time the pitcher misses his spot, every time a shortstop misses the throw is one more failure that teaches and grows a better player.

You don’t have to be a Rich Dad / Poor Dad disciple (or Katy Perry fan) to know that one of the reasons most people never flourish is that they are afraid to fail, and so they never try to succeed.  Sports does a great job showing kids that failure isn’t the end of the story.  There can always be another shot, another pitch, another race.

Finally, sports does a great job showing kids how important cooperation and trust are, which are similarly important foundations for capitalism.

The most fundamental necessity to capitalism is fair laws and the fair application of those laws.  You can read Deirdre McCloskey, or you can just watch youth sports and see how kids react to bad reffing.  They know what’s up.  The rules are supposed to be applied equally to everyone.

But that’s only one side of trust. The other is with your teammates.  Teammates don’t have to be friends or like each other, but they do have to trust that everyone on their team is going to uphold their share of the communal load.

Capitalism requires that lots of people get together to share their raw materials with each other.  Lemonade requires someone with lemons, someone with sugar, someone with water, and someone with time.  More often than not, it’s not all going to be one person with all those things, it’s going to be a few people pooling their resources together to build a finished product (or one person outsourcing his needs to others, which is the same thing).

Trusting your supply chain is the same thing as a quarterback trusting his center.

Perhaps the most important things kids can learn from sports is the glorious order that can be generated out of chaos.  Sure, it’s nice when a play is perfectly executed, but it’s the broken plays that require fast thinking, remarkable skill, or maybe even a little luck that stick in athletes’ minds.

When you’re holding a basketball, there are literally infinite vectors, speeds, and rotation that you can shoot a basketball.  Yet, somehow, even in this field of infinite possibilities, the human spirit manages more often than not to generate the order necessary to complete a pass, make a shot, set a pick, or toss up an alley oop.

In a lot of ways sports is beautiful not because it’s scripted, but because anything can happen on any given Sunday.

Is it any different in capitalism?












Scientia Contra Scientitatem (vel Fides et Sceientia, Manus in Manu)

Here’s an article titled Math is Racist, which is a misleading name.

Essentially  profiles a professional mathematician (sounds like a data analyst to me) who trucks with the Occupy Wallstreet crowd.  She claims that mathematics is being used to hurt poor people on loan applications, criminal sentencing, and so on.

A few thoughts:

1) It’s crazy easy to hurt poor people.  Want to not live by minorities?  Move somewhere with high property taxes.  Want to enmesh them in the criminal justice system and feel good about yourself at the same time?  Enact usurious vice taxes on things like cigarettes and alcohol and outlaw cheap vices like marijuana.  It’s not like you need to be a statistician to think of ways to hurt poor people.

2) One of the things they make you learn when you become a statistician is something called discriminant analysis, which is a fancy way for coming up with mathematical rules for separating things into groups.  The classic example is that you have a bunch of different flowers that look alike but are different flowers.  You create a mathematical model based on the size of the petals and sepals and it classifies them.

You don’t always get perfect rules to tell them apart, but you can do a lot better than random chance.  So, for example, if you had four types of flowers in a hat, picked one out and then randomly said it was one of the four types of flowers, you’d have a 25% chance of being correct.  Using discriminant analysis, you might be able to move that up to a much higher rate of accuracy (maybe 75 or 85%).

When talking heads talk about computer algorithms to predict our behavior, what they’re really talking about is discriminant analysis.  When you buy some stuff on Amazon, it uses discriminant analysis to figure out what “type” of person you are and then selects other stuff that your “type” might want to buy.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But it’s not supposed to be perfect.  Amazon has an almost infinite number of products–if it randomly picked something to suggest, it would have a negligible chance of picking something you’d want.  But if it can improve that chance to even a few percentage points, it’s a success.

When you get turned down for a loan or face harsher penalties for crimes based on your zip code, credit score, and other things, that’s discriminant analysis.

3) My problem with the title of the article is that the profilee is clearly not anti-science.  She’s anti-a-particular-application-of-science, which is a very different thing.  She doesn’t not believe that discriminant analysis is a real mathematical tool, she believes that employing it in  loan applications or criminal sentencing is wrong.

A better way of looking at this is that she’s anti-scientism, which I’d define as the belief that “Science” and the scientific method is the only reliable guide for human understanding.

In a sense, anti-scientism is the entire underpinning of books like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park, which are essentially reframings of the question “Science tells us we can do this, but should we?”

4) We have a big problem politically (on both sides–but not with enlightened people like me who are moderates), wherein each claims that the other is “anti-science.”  (Liberal friends, you may not know that that conservatives think that you are the anti-science ones, but, like, it’s a thing. You need to read more NRO).

Sometimes the problem is legitimate dogmatic anti-scientism (opposition to an earth age in the billions of years or a belief that nuclear power is unsafe).  But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about whether or not certain scientific methods or tools should be employed, which is a discussion of ethics.
Ultimately, ethics is something I have a hard time letting scientists police themselves on.  Scientifically, neuroscience can eventually tell us (maybe now?) which parts of the brain we could manipulate in order to create hordes of willing slaves, but nothing in the scientific method is gong to tell us whether or not we should.
I mean, heck, science tells us that H-bomb and mustard gas are super good ways of killing people, it tells us that forced chemical castration is possible, and that poor children are more likely to grow up to be societal drains.
But nothing in science or scientism can tell us not to gas the Southside of Chicago or chemically castrate the entire barrio population in Sao Paulo.
Instead, the woman from the article makes to me a very appropriate faith-based argument against using a scientific method to the detriment of people.
5) Faith is a funny thing, since it can be either deistic or non-deistic.  Lots of people believe in the golden rule because they think that a supernatural power wants them to.  Lots of others who are atheists believe in the golden rule because that’s the “right thing to do.”
But there’s nothing scientific about it.  It can’t be tested or created in a lab.  Sure, there can be studies on reciprocity in the natural world or game theory on outcome optimization and whatever, but nothing in the inductive scientific method could produce it.
Which means that believing that humans should obey the golden rule becomes a tautological “People should do this because people should do this.”  At this point, I’d argue, we’re talking about a belief that cannot be only rooted in logic or reason, which is another way of saying faith.
The great strength of science is answering the question “how?” and the great strength of faith is answering the question “should?”.
6) This implies, I think, that in order to utilize science to it’s best, we need faith to inform us (just as faith is best when it’s underpinned by rational and logical criticism).  Neither can exist in a vacuum.  Both are necessary for the survival of the other.

Five Reasons Conservatives and Progressives Should Have Gardens

For Conservatives:

1)  Most of the time, the plants just grow by themselves without a lot of help, but sometimes you need to interfere to make sure that one or two of them thrive.  The plants don’t get to choose their soil, how much light they get, or if they get enough water.  Sometimes you need to get in there and give them a hand

2)  It’s easy to look at some plants and say “Grow faster!” and “Do better!” and “Why can’t you produce as much as the other guy next to you!”, but that isn’t going to help.

3)  In gardening, when you’ve grown enough for yourself, you give the rest away to friends and neighbors or else it just rots and stinks everything up.

4)  Every garden requires at least some planning beforehand.  Every garden requires at least some guidance.  The flowers are no less free to thrive because someone made sure they all had food and water.

5)  If all the plants in one part of the garden die, chances are pretty good that there’s a deeper reason than just “those are lazy plants.”

For Progressives:

1)  You have to get rid of the weeds.  Yes, technically they are still plants, but if you don’t get rid of them, nothing else can thrive.  If you want roses, you have to get rid of the weeds.  You can’t just try to convince the weeds to transform into roses.

2)  Gardening is the purest example of why Capitalism works.  You yourself pick which things to grow and invest the effort in growing them.  Useless raw material (dirt, sun, filthy water, and some little baby seeds) turn into finished goods and services.  Nobody wants someone telling them what they can and cannot do with their time and effort.

3)  Sometimes things need to be pruned.  Just because you have an established plant doesn’t mean that you just let it grow forever without further consideration.  Sometimes being in charge means you have to get rid of the useless parts of a plant to make sure the parts you really want stay healthy.

4) Some plants give you very predictable results.  Others have unintended consequences.  Don’t forget the thorns when you’re planting the roses.  If you put too much fertilizer on a plant, it dies.  Giving something too much help is just as bad as not giving it enough sometimes.

5)  If you get rid of the seeds, you are, in essence, getting rid of the plants.  The seeds are the plants.

The Heart of Capitalism

I was Killing Orcs the other day (*”Killing Orcs” is the euphemism my wife uses for when I am playing MMORPGs).  One of the other players posted a question in the general chat channel asking a favor.  I did the requested favor.  I felt good because I had used my talents, time, and resources to produce something of value for someone else.  This led to a larger discussion in the chat channel on Communism and Capitalism, and I wanted to get a few thoughts out.

Economic systems seek to turn raw materials into finished products to make life easier.  All economic systems do this (except Environmentalism, which, in a sense, is an anti-economic system).  If Bob has lemons, Susan has sugar, Paul has water, and Brittany has free time, then individually they don’t have much you’d want (lemons are too tart by themselves, sugar is too sweet, water is filthy and disgusting, and free time isn’t so impressive).

Together though, they have the ingredients for delicious lemonade, fit for the finest of my skull mugs as I sit atop my throne of bones surveying my vast holdings.

Finished goods don’t have to be lemonade.  Finished goods can be concrete (“lemonade”, “a gun”) or abstract (“security”, “knowledge”).  A glass tube, some chemicals, and a Bunsen burner are the raw materials that create understanding of explody things, just like two wheats and three ores will build a city in Settlers of Catan.

Both Capitalism and Communism can get finished products from raw goods.  In fact, I would venture that if you gave these four things to four pre-indoctrinated children in either political system, they would come up with lemonade, because cooperation is a natural part of the human spirit.

In fact, I think most capitalists underestimate what can be accomplished in a communist state.  Neighbors help each other, children play games, and some raw goods become finished products spontaneously, without any government intervention or force.


The rest of the time shows the difference between the two systems, when there are differences of opinions about how to use the raw materials we have access to.  Consider the lemonade example.  Arianna had the free time to mix the lemonade, but lets say she has another group of friends, interested in producing ice cream, who need some extra hands.  Arianna wants to spend her resource (time) making ice cream instead of making lemonade.

In Capitalism, each person owns his own capital.  In Arianna’s case, her capital is her time, and in a capitalist system, she is free to choose to go make ice cream instead of lemonade.  Which is to say, she is free to expend her capital as she wishes.  Tough nuts for the Lemonaders, who now face a labor shortage, but a boon for the Ice Creamers.  Unless she has broken a contract, the state need not interfere through force (i.e. the government).

But in Communism, Arianna does not own her capital (her free time)–the state does (the “res publica” in Ciceronian terms).  And if the state (which, in reality, is just Arianna’s fellow citizens) wants her to be making lemonade instead of ice cream, it can use force (i.e. the government) to get her to do what it wants her to do.  She has no right to refuse if her interests do not align with that of her state.

And so on.  If Arianna had chosen to expend her capital in charity (working for free at a pet shelter), she would be free to do that in a Capitalism system, but not a Communist one (unless the state was prioritizing shih-tzu awareness month).

Thus, at heart, the essence of Capitalism is freedom, and the essence of Communism is servitude.

The common misconception is that Capitalism can be reduced to profit-seeking in a monetary sense, when it would be better to see Capitalism explained as happiness seeking.  However, not happy in the sense of joy (Latin: “laetus”), but rather happy in the sense of luck or destiny (Latin: “felix”).

This is a crucial point, lost because of changes in the English language which have eroded this second meaning of happiness (which is the one Jefferson used in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” line from the Declaration of Independence).  Capitalism allows each man to be the author of his own fortune (be this as a blacksmith, artist, philosopher, or ploughman) as he sees fit, rather than allow the state to decide his fortune for him.

This does not mean, however, that the idea of freedom isn’t terrifying to some.  Many people are petrified by the idea of walking the economic tightrope without a net.  The idea of investing time or resources wisely but individually is far worse than an alternative wherein they sacrifice their unwelcome freedom for greater security.  History is littered with examples of people who willingly enslaved themselves to stave off poverty, hunger, or death.  Freedom is often a less cherished idea than some would have you believe.  Some, free, will always yearn for the soft embrace of the slave’s collar instead of the harsh winds of choice.