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Baseball and the Economics of Fan Loyalty

Recently, while perusing the new releases section in the Tempe Public Library, I stumbled upon George Will’s latest ode to baseball, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred. Yes, the iconic ivy-laden home of the Cubs opened its doors in 1914—although, for what it’s worth, at the time it was called Weeghman Park and was home to the short-lived Chicago Whales.

george-will-wrigley-field-coverIf you’re a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan like me, you’d probably enjoy the book. If you’re not, you probably shouldn’t waste your time. It’s full of odd historical anecdotes and obscure statistics, and Will makes a habit of going down his share of rabbit trails.

For instance, in these pages we learn that the infamous Jack Ruby—the man who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, who himself had of course just assassinated John F. Kennedy—was in fact born Jacob Leon Rubenstein, and for a time worked in concessions at Wrigley. On account of some unscrupulous sales tactics, he’d developed a reputation as a hustler. Cubs management, in turn, assigned someone to watch him through binoculars “to make sure they were getting their share of his nefarious sales.”

But I digress. One of the more fascinating parts of the book that is about Wrigley Field is the section about the statistical relationship between the tolerance of a team’s fans for bad baseball and their willingness to continue to attend games.

For the Cubs, interestingly, fans don’t stay away when the team is lousy. In fact, despite the fact that the team is almost always lousy, the stands at Wrigley Field are almost always full. What’s more, tickets to games at The Friendly Confines are among the priciest in baseball.

The D-backs, the home team which I adopted as my own after moving here in 2011, have played dismal baseball this year. The season was effectively over on April 29, with a team record of 8-22, which equates to a stunningly bad .267 winning percentage. In order to recover and win 90 games, the postseason threshold for the National League last season, the D-backs would have needed to go on to win 82 of their remaining 132 games, for a winning percentage of .621. Instead, they’ve hovered just under .500 in games played since then. This has been good enough to earn the distinction of being the third-worst team in the league, which, while still pretty bad, is a definite improvement over being the very worst.

Truth be told, even though I’ve continued to follow scores and highlights thanks to my trusty MLB At Bat app, I haven’t gone to many games this year. A parade of injuries and a couple of sensible but nonetheless painful trades—in addition to that dismal win-loss record, of course—have left me with fewer and fewer reasons to head down to Chase Field. When I have been there, however, I’ll tell you what I’ve noticed: a lot of empty seats. This despite the fact that a good number of the seats that aren’t empty consist of fans wearing colors other than Sedona red.

This season the D-backs rank #22 out of all 30 teams in attendance, averaging just over 25,000 per game in a stadium that holds twice that many. (For comparison, the hated Dodgers—who currently lead our division and hold the best record in the National League—average nearly 47,000 in home attendance.)

With attendance figures like these, it’s really tough to find angles that make the atmosphere at Chase Field appear festive in photographs. In other words, tens of thousands of empty seats make for depressing Instagrams. So you need to get creative, perhaps by pointing your phone camera heavenward, capturing the sturdy infrastructure of the closed roof, protecting us from the 100-degree-plus night air. Whatever it takes to crop out empty seats.

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While reading this book on Wrigley Field, however, I began to wonder whether the empty seats at Chase Field might actually be a good thing; that is, a sign of good things to come.

You see, according to Cubs fans Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, authors of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the reason Cubs owners have consistently fielded bad teams has to do with the fact that regardless of team performance, the fans will consistently show up for games.

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This makes perfect sense, in George Will’s analysis, when you consider incentives, “the concept central to all economic reasoning.” All teams clearly have incentives to win, but not all teams have equally strong incentives. Moskowitz and Wertheim found that comparing winning percentages and home field attendance, Cubs attendance “is the least sensitive to performance in all of baseball.” The Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, who never stay very bad for long, both have fairly strong attendance sensitivity.

If Moskowitz and Wertheim are right, fans who vote with their feet might not necessarily be bad fans. Rather, could it be that by staying home, D-backs fans are effectively showing team executives that we care about the quality of play on the field, and not merely about stadium amenities and giveaways? I hope that’s the case. We don’t want to go the way of the Expos, after all.

Truth be told, I’ll continue to attend games at Chase Field, year after year, win or lose. I am, after all, a fan of the D-backs and a fan of baseball. But as long as team executives appear content to preside over mediocrity, I’ll continue to limit those visits to a handful per year. The outside chance of a pennant race would alter my priorities considerably, and I suspect a lot of other D-backs fans feel the same way. I really, really hope that Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa, and the other powers that be feel appropriately incentivized.

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The Tyranny of Experts

Back when I was studying international development in grad school five or six years ago, the war of words between development economists William Easterly and Jeffrey “The Idealist” Sachs was at a fever pitch. Things have since quieted down a bit—their brief, fiery skirmish earlier this year notwithstanding—partly because both of them to one extent or another have pursued other interests.

Sachs, for his part, has never left the media spotlight. But these days you’re less likely to hear him talking about aid and development in Africa than about the science of climate change or the downing of Flight 17 in Ukraine. As has been argued at length elsewhere, you could say Sachs is “a man with many faces.”

Easterly has re-focused his energies as well, though to his credit, it doesn’t seem that he’s gotten bored with the field of development economics quite the way his media-savvy interlocutor apparently has. His latest book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, is a jeremiad against what Easterly calls “the technocratic illusion,” an approach he describes as conventional, unquestioned, and tremendously damaging to the poor. This approach is characterized as “the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.” What it ignores is “the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights”—the very thing, according to Easterly, that keeps people trapped in poverty.

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In Easterly’s view, poverty is about a lack of rights, not a lack of expertise. Although development experts at the World Bank and elsewhere have a long track record of cooperating with autocratic governments for presumably pragmatic reasons, Easterly argues that the dictator who agrees to implement technocratic development fixes in his country while denying the rights of his country’s citizens is not the solution, but the problem. In other words, despite development expenditures in the millions of dollars, sustainable economic development is not going to happen when the basic rights of the poor are denied.

Easterly sure is an interesting guy, and he’s not easy to peg. In my experience, most of the people who tirelessly bang the “rights of the poor” drum don’t also quote libertarian poster boy Friedrich Hayek approvingly and at length in order to reinforce their points. As Easterly himself points out, “the rebels against the technocratic consensus”—these rebels being, of course, his heroes—”come from both the left and the right, and they often hold incompatible views on almost everything else.”One can’t help but admire Easterly’s intellectual honesty and his willingness to appeal to unlikely bedfellows without apology, whatever else one might make of his arguments.

Overall, I’m on board with Easterly’s argument in The Tyranny of Experts. I agree with him that it’s dangerous to talk about—much less try to implement—development without a proper concern for the rights of the poor. And I love his insistence that development and rights not be seen as amoral undertakings. “Morally neutral approaches to poverty do not exist,” he writes. “Any approach to development will either respect the rights of the poor or it will violate them.” He had more to say about the morality of development, incidentally, in his interview with Kent Annan in Christianity Today this spring.

My beef with Easterly comes when he pits big bad institutions against autonomous individuals in what strikes me as a simplistic zero sum game. The rights of individuals obviously matter immensely, in economics, politics, religion, free speech, and otherwise—and these same rights are routinely compromised by autocratic leaders to tremendously detrimental effect. No argument there.

But the antidote to big bad institutions, in my view, is not to do away with them but to seek to reform them. One doesn’t need to pretend that institutions can do no wrong in order to believe in their potential to contribute to human flourishing. As Jamie Smith has written, “Institutions are durable, communal ways that we can act in concert with our neighbours to achieve penultimate goods.” I’m not sure Easterly sees things the same way, and that’s too bad.

But this institutions-versus-individuals example is just one of the false dichotomies he sets up in the book, as John Donaghy pointed out in his measured critique. Donaghy, a thoughtful guy who works with the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán in Honduras and is committed to the work of justice among the people with whom he serves, challenges Easterly’s brand of unapologetic individualism by appealing to a mid-80s pastoral letter on economic justice from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The letter says, in part, that “human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. In our teaching, the human person is not only sacred but also social.”

The status quo—what Easterly calls the “technocratic illusion”—is both counterproductive and morally problematic, and The Tyranny of Experts succeeds in making the case for an open and honest debate about what experts and autocrats have long taken for granted. My own misgivings aside, I hope that debate does indeed take place and that it serves to instigate changes throughout the development sector that are both fundamental and long overdue.

[Header Photo: Panel of experts at the World Bank Annual Meeting in Tokyo in 2012 via bluechipmag.com]

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The Beast

If you’ve been following the news about the humanitarian crisis involving unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America—you’ve undoubtedly seen references to “The Beast.”

This is, of course, what migrants call the series of freight trains that begin near the border between Mexico and Guatemala and head north towards the United States. Migrants risk life and limb to jump aboard these trains as they accelerate after picking up or dropping off cargo. And if the migrants are lucky—that is, if they don’t fall off, get shoved off, or otherwise get assaulted—they ride on the roof for hours, before connecting to the next train on the long journey north.

The Beast is also the title of a book by the young, award-winning Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. The book is riveting and gritty, and at times it left me rattled. But for those who sense that the epithets employed by talking heads on cable news may not do justice to the human weight of the story, I highly recommend it.

It’s one thing to pontificate from a safe distance; it’s another to experience the harrowing journey aboard The Beast for yourself. And that’s exactly what Martínez did. After having a conversation with a priest who describes the migrant corridor through Mexico as “a cemetery for the nameless,” Martínez sets out to discover those names and to share their stories—you know, the kind of thing a good journalist does.

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Beginning in southern Mexico and continuing all the way to various spots along the United States border, he introduces us to specific Central Americans and tells us about their lives. He accompanies them for portions of their journey, riding the train, braving the elements, sleeping in migrant shelters, dealing with coyotes, dodging narcos, asking questions. The result is a remarkably up close look at the perils of the migrant journey. As Martínez writes,

On top of a train there aren’t journalists and migrants, there are only people hanging on. There is nothing but speed, wind, and sometimes a hoarse conversation. The roof of the cars is the floor for all, and those who fall, fall the same way. Staying on is all that matters.

I’m sure those who are reading this have a variety of views on what should be done about the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have arrived in the United States since last October. That’s understandable. After all, the causes of the crisis are complex and easy fixes will inevitably fall short. Regardless of your stance, though, I’d encourage you to learn the names and stories of at least some of the people behind the statistics. If you don’t know how to do that for yourself where you live, let Óscar Martínez introduce you to Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele. To Paola, Saúl, and Keny. To Wilber, Epifanio, and Erika—and to a number of others.

Those we meet in the pages of The Beast are not all heroes, that’s for sure, nor are they all victims. But the men, women, and children we meet are all actual human beings, and when it comes to humanitarian crises, human beings beat caricatures any day of the week.

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What Gives You Hope?

This summer, Comment Magazine is hosting a series of symposia in which they ask friends of the magazine a fun question and then share the brief responses. They asked the first group what they’re reading these days.  They asked the second group what rest looks like for them this summer. I was invited to participate in the third group, responding to the question: What gives you hope in your corner of the world? Here’s what I had to say:

This spring I spent a day at Fuller Seminary’s campus here in Phoenix, where N.T. Wright was speaking on the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul. During a wide-ranging Q&A time following one of the lectures, someone asked Wright how he managed to maintain a sense of hope while serving as Bishop of Durham, given the problems he inevitably encountered within his congregation, his diocese, and in the Church of England as a whole. Wright acknowledged that he dealt with his share of discouragement, but that being a bishop gave him a unique vantage point to continually see pockets of hope throughout the diocese—even when other challenges near and far would have prompted despair.

I’m not a pastor, nor am I a bishop, but I found myself resonating with his response as I reflected on my own work. Here in Phoenix, after all, we have good reason to be discouraged as well—and not just because it’s that time of year when temperatures hover well above the triple digit mark. Bad as that may be, even worse is the fact that our city and state have come to serve as punching bags. You may have seen the recent article, for instance, that declared in no uncertain terms that Phoenix is ”the worst place ever.”

But some of us genuinely enjoy living here, believe it or not. I happen to be one of those people. I love the big skies punctuated by desert outcroppings. I’m inspired by the can-do attitude I encounter among our city’s entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. I’m grateful for the abundance of flavorful Southwest cuisine like the carne adovada at Richardson’s. And the list goes on.

Phoenix has it’s share of challenges, to be sure, and complicity in this city’s brokenness is something we cannot ignore. But I believe there is good reason for hope, even here in “the world’s least sustainable city.” I sometimes find myself discouraged when I read the news, hear about the latest proposed boycott, or consider how few of my neighbors’ names I’ve actually gotten to know. But when I come across signs of life in otherwise hidden corners of our city, my imagination is stirred and my hope is renewed.

You can read the rest of the responses—which include goose droppings, pick-up basketball, and Thomas the Tank Engine—over at Comment‘s website.

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, I encourage you to check it out. Goofy symposia contributors like me aside, they publish a lot of thoughtful stuff under the rubric of “public theology for the common good.” And as I recently tweeted, the print magazine itself is a sensory delight to behold.