Automatic Baseball: In Memory of My Father

Picture of Dad

Myer (“Mike”) Singer, 95th Light Tank Company, Chigasaki, Japan 1946

 

“Don’t ever look up to anyone. And don’t ever look down on anyone.”

“He gets up in the morning just like you. He ties his shoes one foot at time, just like you.”

These are lines my dad repeated during my youth, pounding home the themes of equality and opportunity. He wasn’t political. To this day, I don’t know how (or whether) he voted. He didn’t resent wealth or covet anyone’s possessions. It was merely his pep talk. He was my coach. In baseball and in life.

Perhaps he was worried that I developed an inferiority complex. My parents sent me to a private school that catered to the wealthy families of Fort Worth, and we didn’t exactly fit in. My dad owned a scrap metal business, Singer Metals, in a rough part of town. His company scraped out the metals from dilapidated computers and other junked electronic devices, and sold the metals on the secondary market. The business was dirty in every sense, and he didn’t want me to get anywhere near it. We lived in a modest house in the southwest (i.e., lower-income) part of the city, and when his business needed an injection of cash, he sold the house, and we moved into an apartment complex near my school.

*   *   *

Myer (“Mike”) Singer was born in Cleveland in 1928, as the nation was heading into an economic collapse. His father was a bootlegger—which for the longest time brought me great shame until I learned of other families who participated in the underground economy—and his mother took care of the home. In his youth, my dad and his siblings served as decoys on the family’s whiskey deliveries, sitting atop of the barrels on the truck. During one pending raid at his home, at his father’s instructions, my dad poured the sweet sauce out the second-story window.

My dad didn’t care much for academics, and spent most of his youth playing tennis on public courts. Upon graduating high school, he left for Japan to serve in the occupation army after World War II. Given his tennis acumen, he easily made the army’s travel team, and he played against Japanese opponents in tournaments across Japan, making his way to the quarter finals (an accomplishment he mentioned often). If you wanted to make peace with a former enemy, you would send my dad.

Upon returning from Japan, he married my mother (then Ina Miller) in Cleveland and started a family. He was a traveling salesman with no real skills other than his charm. He boasted about his marketing skills, claiming that he could “sell snow to the Eskimos.” Apparently he could: He semi retired in his late thirties, taking the family to Miami for extended vacations. When the money ran out, he followed an uncle down to Dallas, where he was introduced to the seedier side of the scrap metal business.

Scrap metal in the 1970s was dominated by “tough Jews,” and his unscrupulous uncle fit the profile. Deliveries of metals from the Dallas site were often deliveries of dirt, with a veneer of metals to throw off the unsuspecting customers, who upon learning of the fraud couldn’t exactly complain. Because he was not a tough Jew, my dad broke away from his uncle’s shop and started his own in Fort Worth, moving my mom, sister and brother down from Cleveland. The family would expand by one in 1972.

In the days before social media, my dad was a social animal. He belonged to the local conservative synagogue and the local JCC. (He was raised in an orthodox home. I remember visiting his parents in Cleveland. We couldn’t operate electronics during the Sabbath, so we walked to the synagogue, where I watched the services alongside my mother from a second-story balcony, as women were not allowed to participate.) He had a breakfast club at the local CoCo’s (which became JoJo’s), and the breakfast club turned into a pool club in the late mornings. I watched him play pool for hours on the weekends—he mastered the game, leaving his opponents with impossible shots on the rare occasions he missed his own—and when his friends left our home, he would play me. He also had a poker club, which met once a week for decades.

My dad was my baseball coach during my formative years. Due in part to his laziness—he was badly overweight in his fifties—but also due to his keen understanding of incentives, he pioneered the technique of Automatic Baseball. Under this system, if a player made an error in the field, the player would automatically take himself out of the game. If a pitcher (and that was often me) surrendered two runs, the pitcher would come off the field. This set of rules took all decision-making out of the hands of the coach. Although it sounds harsh, it was the opposite: He loved his players, they loved him, and we played with focus. He never yelled. Before one game, he placed a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket and told me to earn it. He drove his white Pontiac Firebird to the game and chewed his cigars from the dugout.

In high school, he attended all of my home games, and many of my road games. Sometimes we traveled great distances from Fort Worth to find other prep schools comprised of affluent white kids. At home baseball games, he would sit near tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who became the second mom of one of my teammates (way before that became a thing). He witnessed my one and only touchdown in Dallas. He never missed a play or musical performance, and embarrassingly I dabbled there. One such play was at a community theater; the show ran for two weeks straight, and he, along with my mom, didn’t miss a single performance. (Don’t even bother trying to get the tapes. They are in a sealed vault.) He traveled to Tulane to see my final performance. (Also sealed.)

My dad and I watched hundreds of Texas Rangers games together, some in person but mostly in our apartment. Watching a game with my dad was a magical experience. And not just for me. My friends would ask if they could come over to watch the games with him. He would lay on the couch, belly slightly exposed, and wax eloquently about life and baseball. There was something cathartic about being in his presence. And it was something they couldn’t get in their own homes.

The action in baseball is sufficiently episodic that it permits conversation. When my friends were not around, my dad and I would debate several things, but a recurring sore spot was my career path. He was disappointed that I planned to give up acting to become an economist, which would take nine years of school. Education wasn’t a priority: “Bring me home some damn B’s so I know that you’re normal!” Our fights in the living room would go something like this.

Me: You don’t understand that the vast majority of actors are starving. We only hear about the success stories. The mean income of an actor is below the poverty line!

Him: You are not the mean! You are a star!

Me: I am a star among a couple of hundred kid actors in Forth Worth. That’s not going to translate to success in New York.

Him: You will be a star no matter where you go!

And so it went. He never moved off of his position, and I would reject his career advice to become a lame (in his eyes) economist. Looking back at the debate, I’m not so sure he cared about which path I took. He just wanted to drive home the idea that I was special. That was his job. He was my coach. (There is also a little performance in what I do. So hopefully he would be proud.)

My dad had a triple bypass when I was at college in the early 1990s. He quit the cigars, but he refused to modify his diet or to exercise. He retired in his sixties and remained in the same apartment until he could no longer navigate the stairs leading to the front door. He moved to a retirement home in Fort Worth, and then to a nursing home in Clearwater. My sister and her family visited him weekly, and my brother and I would fly in as much as we could.

My dad lost the ability to speak in his final years. Yet he could still sing, and he remembered the lyrics of several songs. So we would sing together in his room. “I Like New York in June” and “Mister Five” were his favorites. We often sat together in silence.

My dad was slightly embarrassing to take to nice restaurants. He would order his steaks well-done with a side of ketchup. He would send back soups that were not served at sweltering temperatures. He would often say, “I want to go to the places where the stools are high and the prices are low.” I’m not sure they charge prices where he is going. But he is sitting atop the highest stool.

My dad passed away on Monday. He was 91 years old. He leaves behind his wife (Ina), three children (Madelyn, David and me), five grandchildren (Billy, Bobby, Alexis, Kayla, and Jake), and two great-grandchildren (Maddy and Cooper). He will rest in Florida National Cemetery, near the city of Bushnell. And he will be missed dearly.

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My Remarks at the FTC’s Competition and Consumer Protection Hearings: Understanding Exclusionary Conduct in Cases Involving Multi-Sided Platforms, Issues Related to Vertically Integrated Platforms

Dominant tech platforms have the incentive and ability to leverage their platform power into ancillary markets by vertically integrating and then favoring their affiliated content, applications, or wares in their algorithms and basic features. A platform owner should be concerned for the overall health of its ecosystem, which in theory would discourage it from squeezing complementors; but that calculus goes awry when a platform enjoys monopoly power and can take its customers for granted.[1]

Dominant tech platformsalso can exploit the vast amount of user data made available only to them, by monitoring what their users do both on and off their platforms, and then appropriating the best-performing ideas, functionality, and nonpatentable products pioneered by independent providers. If these practices are left unchecked, the resulting competitive landscape could become so inhospitable that independents might throw in the towel, leading to less innovation at the platforms’ edges.

In a recent issue of The Economist, venture capitalists referred to the area around the tech giants in which startups are squashed as the “kill-zone.” Classic examples of new ventures that have flown too close to the sun include Diapers.com,BareBones WorkWear, and Beauty Bridge (in Amazon’s orbit); Foundem.com, TripAdvisor, Shopping.com (in Google’s orbit); and Snapchat, Timehop, and Grubhub (in Facebook’s orbit). A 2017 survey of two dozen Silicon Valley investorssuggests that Facebook’s appropriation of app functionality from edge rivals is “having a profound impact on innovation in Silicon Valley.”

Some new findings are consistent with independents throwing in the towel or not getting funded. Per Crunchbase data, venture investing inside of tech, as measured by the number of deals, has declined since 2015 on average by 23 percent in the U.S. and by 21 percent globally; in contrast, venturing investing outside of techincreased over that same period, suggesting the problem might be tech-specific. And new research using PitchBook data reveals that broadly defined industries in the Amazon/Google/Facebook orbit experienced a collapse in first financings since 2015, a reduction not observed in comparable tech sectors.

There are three basic approaches to dealing with this threat to edge innovation. First, we could lean on antitrust enforcement to police discrimination pursuant to the consumer-welfare standard. Second, we could police these episodes on a case-by-case basis pursuant to a nondiscrimination standard. Or third, we could erect structural barriers via legislation to prevent dominant platforms from annexing ancillary markets.

I am on Team Nondiscrimination, but before I defend its merits, let me briefly discuss the demerits in the approaches of Team Antitrust and Team Structural Relief. The antitrust path leads to underenforcement because judges increasingly interpret the consumer-welfare standard to require demonstration of a tangible, short-run harm to consumers, and because most episodes of discrimination will not produce a price, quality,[2]or output effect. Moreover, the snail’s pace of antitrust adjudication ensures that edge innovation would be dead by the time relief could be administered.

On the other side of the spectrum, structural separation is a messy undertaking—how one draws the boundaries around a platform’s core mission is not straightforward. Not all ancillary offerings require the same level of ingenuity or creativity, and thus not all verticals present the same welfare tradeoffs. Barring Google from incorporating a commodity feature such as answering a math problem, while beneficial to rival math apps, would likely reduce the welfare of users in the short run without any offsetting innovation gain. Finally, structural separation can always be imposed after less invasive, behavioral remedies have been deployed without success.

The problem from an economic perspective is not vertical integration per se. The problem arises when vertical integration is followed by discrimination in a vertical that entails innovative or creative energies—that is, in verticals where the best source of content is likely from independents. Under a nondiscrimination regime, Amazon would be free to sell private-label masks, and Google would be free to collect and attempt to organize its own restaurant reviews.

But as soon as these platforms vertically integrate, they would be subjected to a nondiscrimination standard. This standard would be enforced via a complaint-driven process, initiated by the party alleging discrimination. The standard would prevent Google from limiting its search results for local doctors or local restaurants to Google-affiliated web properties; instead, Google would be required to run its PageRank algorithm across the entirety of the public web for local searches. Under a nondiscrimination standard, a vertically integrated Google could discriminate in its organic search results in everydimension save one—whether the results are affiliated with Google.

An added benefit of my approach is that borrows from the solution to a nearly identical problem concerning vertical integration by a dominant platform in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The dominant platform of that era was owned by cable operators, many of whom vertically integrated into programming. Based on a handful of compelling anecdotes, which revealed the vulnerability of independent cable networks operating at the “edge” of the cable platform, Congress created a specialized, dispute-resolution process that operated outside of antitrust and provided a forum for independent networks to lodge discrimination complaints against vertically integrated cable operators. The protections were not supported by an econometric proof of diminished edge innovation owing to discrimination, but instead were motivated by a simple political preference—that independent networks were an important source of innovation in content and were deserving of protection.

To create similar protections for independent content providers of the Internet era, Congress would have to pass a law with a private right of action. It could give the FTC power to resolve these matters administratively, or private parties could develop federal common law on this issue by trying cases before Article III judges.

So, I have a modest proposal: The FTCshouldpursue a Section 2 case against a tech platform when the harms manifest as a price, output, or quality effect. In the absence of a tangible consumer injury, the FTC couldpursue a Section 5 case by treating discrimination as an unfair practice. In any event, at the end of its competition hearings, the FTC should ask Congress to give the agency a new source of authority to adjudicate complaints against vertically integrated tech platforms pursuant to a nondiscrimination standard. The FTC already has an administrative law judge. Now it just needs a mandate from Congress and some complaints to protect edge innovation.

[1]See, e.g., Feng Zhu & Qihong Liu, Competing with Complementors: An Empirical Look at Amazon.com, Strategic Management Journal(forthcoming 2018) (finding that “affected” sellers on Amazon’s platform, against which Amazon competes directly, reduce the number of products offered on Amazon by 24.1 percent relative to unaffected sellers); Wen Wen & Feng Zhu, Threat of Platform-Owner Entry and Complementor Responses: Evidence from the Mobile App Market (October 2017). Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 18-036 (finding that prior to Google’s entry, the affected app developer, against which Google competes directly, reduces updates on an affected app by 5 percent, and increases the prices of affected apps by 1.8 percent when the entry threat increases; once Google enters, the affected developer reduces updates on the affected app by 8 percent and increases the prices of affected apps by 3.6 percent, consistent with entry accommodation).

[2]An exception to this general rule is when a search platform degrades its search results so as to promote its affiliated content. See, e.g., Michael Luca, Sebastian Couvidat, William Seltzer, Timothy Wu, and Daniel Frank, Does Google Content Degrade Google Search? Experimental Evidence, Harvard Business School Working Paper 16- 035 (finding that hen Google was induced to revert back to its organic search results, the rankings of competing independent properties were elevated in Google’s search, and users were 40 percent more likely to engage with the search results, as measured by click activity).

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