Don’t encourage the un-encouragable

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution shares his favorite of Morgan Housel’s Motley Fool article, 122 Things Everyone Should Know About Investing And The Economy.

I especially agree with this one:

For many, a house is a large liability masquerading as a safe asset.

This is important to understand and relates to my previous post.

In the U.S. we (especially politicians) have rose-colored glasses when it comes to home ownership. We think it’s good, always. We think, the more the better, always. We have this same affliction with education.

So, you start to see politicians do things to make it easier to become a home owner, like lowering down payment standards.

Home ownership can be good, but as with all good things, it isn’t good for every situation. And, there is a law of diminishing returns that limits the more is better, always.

Back in 2010, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Canada’s Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. I wrote about that here. Canada did not have a banking crisis in 2008. Part of the reason why is that they do not see home ownership with rose-colored glasses like we do. This prevents them from doing unwise things like getting people into home ownership when renting is likely the best option for them.

He said:

“They [Canada’s version of Fannie and Freddie] are supposed to have a certain part of the market but they are not supposed to be a dominant player in the market. They do make sure that lower income earners have access to a roof over their heads, but that can mean rental housing.

There’s no stigma to renting there. That kept Canada’s government, mortgage lenders and borrowers from doing things that encouraged risky home ownership.

In the interview, Flaherty points out some of these things

  • Canada’s lenders didn’t securitize (sell off) mortgages, or off load risks of bad mortgages, to others. They lent and held the mortgage, so it was in their best interest to make good loans.
  • Borrowers couldn’t just walk away from a home with a mortgage. “They remained personally liable.” That encourages borrowers to be more prudent about becoming a home owner. If you can’t rid yourself of the debt by simply stopping paying your mortgage and walking way from the house if things go south, then maybe you don’t buy a home or you buy one that better fits your budget.
  • Canada’s tax code also doesn’t treat mortgage interest as a deduction. This policy also tips the scales toward home ownership in the U.S.

Signals v Causes: The American Nightmare?

An effective political and election strategy has been to identify the signal of the American dream (e.g. home ownership, college education, preschool) as a cause of the American dream — or the American dream itself, and then promise to make it easier for people to achieve it.

Hopefully, we are learning that this actually undermines the incentives and feedbacks that made those things signals of the American dream in the first place, turning them into nightmares.

It turns out that getting a college degree doesn’t cause the American dream. Rather, all the hard work and gumption that use to go into getting the relatively more scarce and useful college degrees of the past was truly what set those kids apart and put them on the path to prosperity and independence.

Change the college degree from a sorting out mechanism to an easy path and the college degree no longer is a reliable signal of those hard workers to employers. Then the nightmare ensues.

As this Wall Street Journal editorial describes:

A lot of these borrowers can’t generate the income to service this debt, especially when so many of them can’t get decent jobs. The left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research recently noted that among recent college graduates age 22-27, a full 45% were underemployed in 2013, meaning they were either unemployed or doing jobs that typically don’t require a four-year college degree.

Of course, it doesn’t help that politicians have also mucked with the incentives of the innovation economy, reducing its capacity to create job opportunities for these folks.

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Failing sucks, get over it

The Wall Street Journal published an adaptation of Admiral William McRaven’s commencement address to the University of Texas about life lessons learned at Navy SEAL Training that is worth a read.

Here are a couple prescient lessons.

Get over failing:

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges.

But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle, it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.

For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed, into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy.

There were many students who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated.

Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.

Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.

If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

More on failing, don’t afraid of “the circus”, in fact it’s how you respond to failure that may build your success in the future:

Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events. Long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics—something designed to test your mettle.

Every event had standards, times that you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards, your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.”

A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit. No one wanted a circus. A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue, and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult—and more circuses were likely.

But at some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list. Yet an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students, who did two hours of extra calisthenics, got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength—built physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.

But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

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Incentives matter: Equal play time in youth sports

Do young rec players play chaotically because they are inexperienced and immature or because of equal play time rules?

Like many youth sports coaches, I’ve discovered that there is no better reward than game time to promote the application of fundamentals and sportsmanship.

I “herded cats” while coaching in a rec league with equal play time rules. It was tough to teach the kids what seems like the simplest parts of the game and they repeated basic errors for far too long.

But, I hadn’t considered that it was the equal play time that caused it. I chalked it up the kids’ immaturity and inability to see the bigger picture consequences of their actions. For example, some players just didn’t seem to think they needed to mark-up, even though they had been repeatedly burned by leaving their man open.

Once we grew out of the equal play rules, I did what came natural and made lineup choices to reinforce the fundamentals.

If a player stopped doing the basics, like marking up, I would sub them out and let them know why. If someone applied the fundamentals — whether or not they were good at it — they stayed in longer. My philosophy was, win or lose, game time was meant for players to practice what we taught them.

I didn’t realize how effective this was until a recent kerfuffle on my team caused me to second guess those lineup choices and go back to equal play time rules.

A parent mistook my subbing order as ‘unfair punishment’ for his son missing practices. He left the game with his son and quit the team. I wasn’t punishing his son. I was giving the people who had attended the lesson the past few weeks a chance to practice it.

I’ve learned in the past that to teach team-play concepts, you need everyone on the field to have gone through the lesson or it’s harder for everyone to learn it. I’m sure that parent wouldn’t want his son taking a math test over a lesson he missed at school without first covering that lesson.

I found over the next couple of games, though, that I was a second guessing a lot of my lineup choices because I wanted to avoid another incident like that. I kept questioning, “how will his parent interpret this?” I found that second guessing distracting and stressful, so to avoid it I went back to equal play rules so no parents could complain that their kids weren’t getting play time.

Over the next few games I watched the team devolve from playing the best I’d ever seen them play, to playing the undisciplined, individual, sloppy playground ball that was characteristic in their rec years.

A parent made the comment — They looked like 6 year olds in rec. She was right.

That got me to thinking.

Not only had the kids quickly devolved from applying fundamentals that they had progressed on over the two previous seasons, but most became unresponsive to our coaching, as well.

That parent’s comment made me realize that they had lost the most effective incentive that encouraged them to apply fundamentals and listen to coaches — play time. They got to play whether they played like we were teaching or not, and over the course of a couple of games they (sub consciously) figured this out.

Game time became “theirs”. Rather than doing what was best for the team, they wanted to make something happen for their own glory during their time. And, of course, when half the team are being glory hounds, they don’t do the basic, boring stuff like marking-up and the team implodes.

This experience made me wonder if equal play rules are the main reason kids play sloppy in rec ball. Perhaps they’d learn the fundamentals faster by having the direct consequence of staying in the game or not based on their application of fundamentals.

So, the next time you see a sports team implode, consider that it may not be that the team is just performing poorly. Perhaps what you are seeing is a result of distorted incentives.

Good links

A short, but insightful graduation speech.

A longer and insightful discussion of wealth and how different views of where it comes from can affect the words we use.

From the first:

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

From the second:

Europeans and Americans “claimed” a higher portion of global output only because they produced a higher portion of global output!  What these Europeans and Americans “claimed” simply would not have existed had they not produced it.

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Taxpayer-subsidized grins

Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, links to a piece about the increase in spending on college athletics.

Anyone involved in youth sports in the last decade might have noticed the emergence of large, multi-level sports clubs, playing in multi-million dollar sports complexes all designed to host large quantities of organized competition for young players to become seasoned masters in their sport and attract the attention of college recruiters.

Having your kid get “signed’ to a college team — no matter how small the college, or how un-followed the sport — is the new crowning achievement of childhood that brings ear-to-ear grins to the faces of parents.

Take away taxpayer-provided college athletic subsidies and that crowning achievement of childhood and the industry that has sprouted to help parents achieve that ear-to-ear grin goes away.

Arnold Kling also comments on college athletic spending.

Parasites, yep

From Charles Krauthammer’s column, Obamacare’s War on Jobs:

In the traditional opportunity society, government provides the tools — education, training and various incentives — to achieve the dignity of work and its promise of self-improvement and social mobility. In the new opportunity society, you are given the opportunity for idleness while living parasitically off everyone else.

Reagan had a similar radio address once. A vampire once demonstrated his wisdom by recognizing he was a parasite and it didn’t make much sense killing his host. And Lady Thatcher once pinpointed the problem with parasites that don’t realize they are parasites. They eventually kill the host and die (though she didn’t quite say it like that).