Winning doesn’t mean much if you aren’t any good…

…and a big problem with soccer in the U.S. is that there are many ways to win without being any good.

That’s true from top to bottom.

The MLS limits the number of good players on a team to even out the competition. It thinks close games attracts more fans.

Youth are separated into age and like skill groups where they can feel successful. The thinking is that winning keeps more kids interested longer.

The downside is that too many people win without being any good. That doesn’t help them get better because it isn’t clear that they need to get better.

Imagine watching a basketball game where players dribble the ball high and away from their body and turn the ball over frequently. Most of the passes they make get intercepted, and they can’t catch a pass. Players with the ball dribble past them easily.

This is what soccer in the U.S. looks like to me: too many players don’t even have the basics. I think a reason is that there’s a lot of winning and incentive to learn the basics.

The point of sports should be to win. But, it should be about winning by being good, not by watering down the competition.

One small example of this is juggling. Players and coaches alike have pleaded their case to me that practicing juggling is unnecessary. “It’s just for show,” they say, because you don’t use it in a game. “Work on the stuff that you actually use,” they say.

It is true that you don’t need to practice juggling, if you only play against others who also don’t know how to juggle.

But, when a juggler and non-juggler go into a 1v1 or 50/50, I’ll put my money on the juggler coming away with the ball.

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Build a better mousetrap

Here’s a decent article about pro/rel in soccer.

In a nutshell: pro/rel in soccer isn’t likely to emerge in the U.S. through competition, as Alexi Lalas suggests it should be with his oft stated, “Build a better mousetrap” analogy.

Lalas’ mousetrap analogy works when consumers choose the winners and losers. MySpace was doing well, but then Facebook built a better mousetrap, for example.

The mousetrap analogy fails when the mousetrap maker, rather than mousetrap buyers, chooses its competition, as is the case with US Soccer.

The competition to see who can best cooperate with consumers

That’s a great way to view competition between businesses.

Credit David Henderson’s post on EconLog, where he is justifiably annoyed at the use of battle terms in a Wall Street Journal article to describe competition between two airlines for consumers flying to and from Seattle. Henderson thinks the author, and many like her, neglect the benefits to consumers when framing business competition as a battle.

Also, credit a commenter on his post, Julien Couvreur, for pointing to and summarizing a Don Boudreaux post about the same thing. Couvreur writes:

…economists tend to talk a lot about competition, but it is competition for cooperation (who can cooperate best with consumers). This is hardly war.

 

Exit is more powerful than voice

In this post, I wrote about how competition and choice is important for encouraging bottom-up innovation. When we say things like “roads are socialized” we gloss over something very important. There isn’t a single road department. There are many. We have Federal highways, state highways, county roads and city roads.

Each department operates somewhat independently and tries different things to solve the problems they face. Every now and then, one happens across an improvement that works well and other road departments can choose to adopt it. That type of innovation would not happen as often if there was a single road department that pushed one set of standards.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution makes this point well in this post about how education was rebuilt in New Orleans after Katrina, when describing the source of innovation in education:

What really drives innovation, however, is not a simple substitution of private for public but a system substitution of competition for monopoly.

I agree. In the comments of his post, I suggested re-framing this in terms of the benefit to the user (edited slightly here):

It is not a simple substitution of a choice between free-to-the user public and cost-to-the-user private, but a system substitution of more choice by the user.’

We often get hung up on the public/private distinction. That doesn’t matter as much as how free the users — the direct beneficiaries — are to make a choice.

The freer the users are to choose to exit their current option if it isn’t working for them, the better.

This dynamic drives innovation. Why, you might ask? Because the freer your users are to leave you, the harder competitors will try to give your users what they want to encourage them to leave and the more honest soul-searching you may do to figure out why your users are leaving you. If you can’t figure it out, you end up going away.

My parents decided to move to exit a school district that wasn’t giving them what they wanted. That choice was much more powerful than their voice would have been had they decided to stay and try to change the direction of the school district.

So, whenever we think about why one system works and another doesn’t, maybe we should think in terms of how free users are to choose.

Innovation welfare

Here and here I wrote about how competition is good for consumers because it gives them more options to choose from, even if those options are among government-provided services. If one police department, school district, fire or road department isn’t doing a good job, perhaps the one next town is better.

In this post at Carpe Diem, Mark Perry writes about how the Mayo Clinic is beginning to offer more choices in health care for Canadians. From his post:

According to this news report about Mayo’s insurance programs for Canadians, “the publicly funded health system in Canada decreases the choices available to patients, and can also result in delayed diagnosis and treatment. That’s why, within the national system, it’s good to offer choices for those who need diagnosis confirmation or even treatment for serious illness.”

Then Perry asks a great question:

Where will Americans go when/if we adopt Canadian-style medicine?

I believe that one thing that makes it possible for other countries to socialize their medical care without full implosion (though with long wait-times and less effective treatments and other negative trade-offs) is the existence of what’s left of the free market in medical care in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

The U.S. medical market helps in at least two ways.

First, it gives those country’s citizens a choice. If they can’t get treatment in a timely manner, or at all, in their country, they can come to the U.S.

Second, the free market in the U.S. still spawns a great deal of innovation in medical care that the health systems in other countries can adopt. In this sense, the free market in medicine has been supplying government health systems — not particularly known for innovation (which makes sense if you understand the incentives) — a kind of innovation welfare.

Without these two positive effects, there would be many more disaster stories from these countries that would sink their medical systems politically.

If we clamp down on the free market in the U.S. and these two positive effects go away, I will expect to see socialized medical systems deteriorate so quickly that it would start a general political trend back toward accepting more free market in medicine.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, we will have lost or delayed countless life saving innovations.

Bottoms up experimentation — update

After writing this post about how nice it is to have 50 states doing things differently so we can find out what works better, it occurred to me that I should note that this competition among government exists at even more local levels.

My parents, who are sometimes prone to believe that there should be just one way of doing things (the ‘right way’) and the Federal government should just do it that way, once benefited from competition among public school districts.

As I wrote about here, I also benefited from this competition.

My parents decided to move from the school district where they were educated to a competing school district seven miles away so my brother and I could get a better education. They felt that their school district had shifted priorities away from education toward political agendas and didn’t like it.

They could have organized campaigns to elect better board members. They could have run for the school board themselves. But those actions were long shots. Even if they got on the school board, they’d still need to battle the other school board members who wanted to use schools as a social experiment.

Moving to a district that was working was a surer bet and it involved no conflict. They could go about their lives and their kids could receive a good quality education at the same price. It was good and practical for them to have that choice.

This competition is a key element that folks ignore when they ask questions like, “we’ve socialized roads, police, school and fire departments, why not health care?”

The roads, police, school and fire departments are all little experiments. They all do things a little differently. If they do their job poorly, the residents — like my parents — can choose  to move to place where they think does it better. If one department discovers a way to do things better, the other road, police, school and fire departments can choose to adopt those innovations. If they don’t, they might lose citizens.

In this sense, “socialized” roads, police, school and fire departments are much more like businesses competing in a free market than anything socialized.

They compound their mistake when they use these localized, competing government departments as an analogy for something that would be truly socialized like a single, government-run medical system.

It was easier for my parents to move seven miles than to fight the bureaucrats of their local school district. When folks argue for a single, government-run medical system they’re arguing for removing choices like that.

Competition and eu-competition is the lifeblood of emergent order

In a recent Freakonomics podcast encore, host Stephen Dubner explores How a Bad Radio Station is like our School System.

About 5 minutes into the podcast, Dubner asks Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Public School System, why the standard model of education — “25 students in a box” — hasn’t changed.

I found Klein’s answer interesting:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?  The answer: Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

And the answer to your [Dubner’s] question is that the school system really does not want to change.  It wants more resources.

What I found interesting about Klein’s answer is that it describes organizations in general, not just education.  Businesses, charities, churches, clubs, families, associations and government organizations, once established, do not really want to change and they want more resources.

A common discussion is why private is better than public — why a business or private charity is better than a government program, for example.

For me, it’s not so much the private/public distinction that matters.  It’s the degree to which the organization is subjected to competition or eu-competition.

Aside:  I’m using eu-competition for lack of a better word (there may be a better word that’s just not coming to mind.  Let me know if you can think of one).  I got this idea of using the eu- prefix from this EconTalk podcast with Mike Munger where he talks about eu-voluntary trades.  These are trades that are voluntary, but one side has considerable more leverage than the other.

My term, eu-competition, means organizations that aren’t directly competing head-to-head with one another, but can benefit from discoveries and innovations made by other organizations.

For example, the political left often holds up fire departments as examples of good socialism at work, as if being funded by taxes is the only dimension of socialism.  What folks making this argument fail to consider is that fire departments operate in a eu-competitive environment.  While fire departments don’t compete head-to-head with each other for resources, they don’t answer to one centralized Federal Department of Fire, either.  And there are many fire departments that operate relatively independent of each other.

This means that there is greater natural likelihood for things to be done differently from one fire department to another.  For the most part, one way isn’t necessarily better than another.  But, every once in a while a fire department happens upon something that is better and before long, other fire departments can choose to adopt it if they too find that it can help.

I think what Klein said about education is true about most organizations — they are systems that don’t want to change.

K-12 education hasn’t had to change.  K-12 education is similar to the fire department example in my aside above, there are many school districts.

But, there is an important difference.   How K-12 education is operated is much more nationally centralized than how fire departments operate.

There is a Federal Department of Education that, as Arne Duncan, the current head of this department, admitted in the same Freakonomics podcast, has acted as a “compliance bureaucracy”.   This Department has the power of accountability through purse strings.  And, if it happens to be holding K-12 school district accountable for not changing, then they won’t change.

Further, there is a body of “education experts”, that have implicit power that they exercise through the Federal Department.

Also, people in general, believe in the one-size-fits-all education model.  I often hear people, even though they complained while going through K-12 of being forced into a box that didn’t fit them, say things like “we just need one standard and it needs to be a good one.”

So, education hasn’t really had the competitive and eu-competitive environment in which to change and evolve through natural experimentation, discovery, innovation and voluntary adoption of changing standards.

Almost every other organization — local government organizations, families, libraries, charities, clubs and businesses — operate in competitive and eu-competitive environments that do better counter act the resistance to change inherent in every organization.