Archive for November, 2011

The Washington Post columnists on the Supercommittee

My apologies to TOTM readers for taking last week off. A firm retreat in Phoenix followed by a hearing in Oklahoma City really puts a crimp on one’s fun time. In the meantime, the BCS announced that it is considering eliminating the automatic-qualification offers to BCS conference champions. The ACC and Big East must not be pleased. Proof that what gets written on this blog has a significant (and positive) impact on the world around us.

Joking aside, in Washington this week, the Supercommittee designed to solve the nation’s budget crisis is dominating the headlines. One wonders whether Washington Post writers who follow economic affairs coordinate their opinions. Within a day of the Supercommittee’s announced failure, at least three prominent columnists have reached the identical opinion regarding who is to blame for the Supercommittee’s failure: President Obama. Today, Michael Gerson writes “The supercommittee failed primarily because President Obama gave a shrug.” In another column, Ezra Klein writes “There’s not much we can do, they [the Obama administration] say, in a world where congressional Republicans won’t agree to a reasonable deal. In most cases, that’s true. In this case, it’s really not.” Klein questions why Obama never embraced the Bipartisan Fiscal Commission report (aka the “Bowles-Simpson report”). Finally, in yesterday’s Post, Robert Samuelson writes “The reason we cannot have a large budget deal is that Americans haven’t been prepared for one. The president hasn’t educated them, and so they can’t support what they don’t understand.” Samuelson explains that if we don’t address these entitlement programs, their costs will nearly double as a share of national income, which will displace spending in other areas or necessitate further tax increases or both.

If these opinions flowed exclusively from right-of-center columnists, then they could be discounted as political posturing. While Gerson was the lead speech writer for George W. Bush, Klein and Samuelson are hardly batting from the right. Will a “consensus” emerge among the center-left that Obama is to blame for the budget crisis, and will it propel Obama to confront the entitlement morass? Or do the political benefits of shirking the entitlement debate outweigh the costs? The lasting power of entitlements stems from the self-reinforcing dependency among the beneficiaries (who come to depend on the program) and the members of the political party protecting the program (who come to depend on the built-in constituency for votes). It would require tremendous leadership and courage for Obama to transcend politics as usual, and to save us from a Greek-like financial calamity. If he is not up for this task, look for the Republican presidential candidates to make Obama’s leadership issue number one in the 2012 election.

P.S. It’s probably best not to bring up budget deficits or Greek-like crises during the Thanksgiving meal. Better for your family to digest the food thoroughly before falling asleep on the couch. When in doubt, talk sports. Here’s a good conversation starter: When was the last time we cared about the Detroit Lions this late into the season?

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Exclusion and the BCS

Every year around this time—around week 10 of college football season—we are reminded of the inequity of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system. Instead of permitting an open playoff system to determine the college football champion, as is done by most other NCAA sports including Division II football since 1973, and more famously, NCAA basketball, the BCS uses a computer algorithm and polls to decide the contestants according to, among other things, regular season performance, the teams’ conferences (BCS-approved or not), and strength of schedule. In particular, six of the ten BCS playoff slots are set aside for teams from BCS conferences.

While choosing the best team in the country is relatively easy, choosing the second-best team is highly controversial, as the second-best team will have some warts. Going into the ninth week of the season, here is a look at the BCS standings: LSU (.9931), Oklahoma State (.9447), Alabama (.8836), Stanford (.8749), and Boise State (.8473). Despite losing at home to LSU this weekend, Alabama is BCS-ranked above undefeated Stanford and Boise State.

In today’s Washington Post, columnist John Feinstein makes a compelling antitrust argument against the BCS:

But here’s the real nightmare scenario for the boys of the Bogus Championship Series: Oregon beats Stanford; Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State. That’s when the BCS apologists will start screaming for an LSU-Alabama rematch.

Is Boise State better than Alabama? Who knows? If college football were a real sport with a real playoff system or tournament, we might get a chance to find out. But you can bet all the TV money in the world that if you were to acquire [Alabama’s head coach] Nick Saban’s cellphone records you wouldn’t ever find a call to the 208 area code to set up a home-and-home with Boise State.

That’s why the money-huggers who argue that Boise’s schedule doesn’t make it worthy of playing for the championship have no argument at all. All of the so-called big-time schools who have played Boise in recent years — Georgia, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma come to mind — have lost. In fact, Boise’s only two losses in the last four years were to TCU and Nevada, who also aren’t worthy of playing for anything meaningful, according to the money men.

What Mr. Feinstein has articulated sounds very much like a coordinated refusal to deal by BCS conferences and their schools against Boise State (and perhaps against TCU in prior years) to maintain their share of the profits generated from post-season Division I football. In economic parlance, a non-BCS team’s strength of schedule—the key factor cited by BCS teams to support exclusion from sharing in the prize—depends on the willingness of BCS teams collectively to schedule games against the attacker. Proving coordinated refusals to deal are quite difficult—the inquiry concerns whether each participant would find it in its unilateral interest not to schedule games with tough non-BCS teams in the absence of the alleged conspiracy—but I am confident that several economists (including your fearless writer) would line up to correct this inequity.

One might argue that no BCS team has an incentive to schedule a tough non-conference opponent, for fear of adding a loss to its record. To this I say poppycock: Bubble teams—teams from weak BCS conferences (like the ACC or Big East) or teams at the bottom of a strong BCS conference (like the SEC)—seek a tough non-conference opponent to bolster their conference victories. In contrast, a team at the top of the SEC simply needs to win its conference. That Virginia Tech (of the weak ACC) and Georgia (at the bottom on the SEC) invited Boise State to play in 2010 and 2011, respectively, does not disprove Feinstein’s conspiracy theory—those teams needed to prove something. Better evidence would be an invite from LSU or Alabama. But alas, those teams seem to schedule tough non-conference games with BCS conference teams. LSU invited Oregon (Pac 10, BCS) and West Virginia (ACC, BCS) this year. It would be good for football—and the competitive process generally—if these non-conference invitations were made irrespective of the opponent’s conference (BCS conference or not).

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