Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A New Game Coming to Town?

Thanks to a friend, today I stumbled across this fascinating chart and accompanying analysis. It outlines the changes in income growth over the past forty years---broken down by income percentile, to show the effects of different presidencies on different classes of people. Among the things it shows it that income growth is rarely even; and it suggests that some of the wild rhetoric about recent tax cuts benefitting only the already-wealthy may not be too far from the truth. And given the recent economic dislocations, it looks like restoration of some level orderly regulation is in the offing---hopefully done intelligently enough to help, rather than hinder, any economic recovery.

I think the point about intelligent regulations benefiting everyone---including those being regulated---is one that's been lost over the recent past. It strikes me that it's rather like a sporting event: you need very few rules and even less enforcement at the sandlot level...where everyone knows one another, it's largely played for fun, and cheaters are easily dealt with. But the higher the stakes, the more formal structure you need.

The trick at the major league level is making sure that the referees don't take the game away from the players. In the sport I referee (soccer), the skill of the officials makes a critical difference in how good a game it is: the better referees leave everyone alone as long as things are running smoothly, stepping in only when needed---on occasion, forcefully, to prevent trouble from escalating into something ugly. The poor officials try to dictate how the game is played...and the really bad ones either interfere so much that everyone---both teams, as well as all their rioting fans---wants to strangle them...or they don't do anything, which usually leads to the same result.

The American sports model, on the other hand, often has a different mindset: the Referee as mindless bureaucrat. This is why the last thirty seconds of a close basketball game can take twenty minutes: the referee is expected to blow the whistle for every single foul...thereby converting a foul into a tactic. (In soccer, the referee would simply let the foul go...since the team with the lead would benefit more from a running clock and the ball than it would from taking a free throw and giving the ball to the other team).

I think many of the political disagreements we have in this country tend to come about because we're approaching things from different philosophical perspectives...and can't always agree on whether rules exist as a guideline, or simply to be enforced regardless of their effect. Part of the problem comes from the fact that so many "referees" tend to be idiots...but that crafting rules to make them idiot-proof means that they're so hopelessly detailed and complex that they often get in the way of the actual "game" they're trying to govern. This leads to periodic disputes over whether we should have more rules or fewer rules...with each side pointing to the disasters caused by following the other side of the argument. Lost in the equation is any thought about having "intelligent" rules.

In economics, we seem to have devolved into a system where too many of us have adopted an "I want mine" (or worse, an "I want yours") philosophy, rather than viewing things as a non-zero sum game, where intelligence and foresight can lead to a system where everyone benefits. I'm not sure where this leaves us...other than I don't think it will help get us out of the mess we're in, and we may have no choice but to change our ways of thinking.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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