Monday, December 26, 2011

Moneyball shows competition isn’t always a winner

One of my favourite films for this year was Moneyball. Ostensibly, it's the story of how the real-life Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland As baseball team, took the second-poorest team in the comp almost to the top.

At a deeper level, it's about how the super-cool guys of professional baseball got beat by the nerds.

It's about how the science of statistics can tell us things we didn't know about our world.

It's about the ultimate make-or-buy decision facing businesses: do you select and train up your own people, or go out and poach someone whenever you need a new heavy-hitter.

But, above all, it's about how competition in markets can fail to live up to its advertising. (If you didn't catch all those levels, read the book by Michael Lewis - much better than the movie.)

Professional baseball in America is a market. All the teams are privately owned businesses, the owners of which are out to maximise profits.

(That's in theory. In practice, many of the owners probably treat their team as an indulgence - a way to enjoy their fortune - as much as a way to increase their fortune; an end as much as a means.)

Beane was so short of money he turned to a bunch of highly educated baseball tragics, who thought studying a potential player's statistical record through high school and college baseball was a better way of predicting his success in the big league than relying on the judgment of talent scouts.

Much to the amazement and disapproval of the traditionalists - and despite their opposition - Beane and the nerds were proved right. Eventually, other teams started copying their methods.

This says to me that, contrary to the assumption of the economists' conventional model, all the guys running all the teams weren't playing for keeps until Beane and his nerds came along.

They wanted to win the comp, but they wanted to win while playing by the unwritten rules - the game's long-established social norms - of how you should go about winning.

To them, picking players by resort to a laptop full of statistics was almost as unsporting as using performance-enhancing drugs.

Here's the point: they didn't want to win for the money - as the model assumes - they wanted to win to impress the other guys in the comp. They were playing a game, not profit-maximising.

Economists portray competition as the foolproof path to efficiency and affluence. And the idea of living in an economy without competition - where everything was supplied by monopolies, whether privately or publicly owned - has zero appeal. Competition does help keep people on their toes.

But competition isn't the unmitigated blessing economists often assume it to be. As I discussed on Saturday, Robert Frank, in his latest book, The Darwin Economy, elucidates the case where competition leads to socially wasteful arms races, where what's good for the individual isn't good for the group.

The conventional model assumes we seek to maximise absolute values: businesses maximise profits, consumers maximise utility.

In real life, however, we're often more concerned about relative values: with how our salary compares with other people's, with whether our firm has the biggest market share. We care most about how we rank.

A related competitive failure occurs when firms (and the individuals who make them up) break (Hugh) Mackay's Law of competition: focus on the customer, not your competitor.

Thanks to their defective model of human behaviour, economists assume we compete only in response to monetary incentives. They forget the urge to compete is hardwired in the brain of the human animal.

We compete because we enjoy competing. We compete because we want to see how we rank in the comp - and we're confident we'll rank well. This, much more than greed, is what motivates the world's billionaire entrepreneurs.

We compete to impress the other players in the game. But when we do, we break Mackay's Law and our efforts don't benefit the community the way the model predicts.

Speaking of misguided competition, consider this from The Economist's Schumpeter column: "The vast majority of American universities are obsessed by rising up the academic hierarchy, becoming a bit less like Yokel-U and a bit more like Yale.

"Ivy League envy leads to an obsession with research. This can be a problem even in the best universities: students feel short-changed by professors fixated on crawling along the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.

"At lower-level universities it causes dysfunction. American professors of literature crank out 70,000 scholarly publications a year, compared with 13,757 in 1959.

"Most of these simply moulder: Mark Bauerlein of Emory University points out that, of the 16 research papers produced in 2004 by the University of Vermont's literature department, a fairly representative institution, 11 have since received between zero and two citations.

"The time wasted writing articles that will never be read cannot be spent teaching.

"In Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue that over a third of America's students show no improvement in critical thinking or analytical reasoning after four years in college."

Clearly, and despite all its virtues, competition can sometimes do more harm than good. But don't be so sure the American unis' misguided motivations could easily be corrected by applying some KPIs - key performance indicators.

It's a safe bet those universities have already been using KPIs to reinforce their academics' obsession with publishing or perishing.

In Australia, our governments have long allowed academic-dominated research councils to hand out research grants in ways that discourage our academics - certainly the economists - from researching Australian issues.