Saturday, January 28, 2012

Krzyzewskiville: A Quick Policy Analysis

The New York Times recently ran a story partly devoted to describing a place I was unfamiliar with, Krzyzewski​ville. Named after the Duke University basketball coach (and also known, not surprisingly, as K-ville), it is a tent city that forms as Duke students line up early for admission to the big basketball game against UNC. K-ville has developed a surprisingly rule-governed culture. No tents are allowed before January 15--the big game is on March 3--and tenters are allowed to sleep indoors when the temperature is below 20 degrees F (heaters are banned). At all other times there are middle-of-the-night tent checks.

Let's leave aside the bigger questions that concerned the Times, about how even good universities have been sucked into the vortex of big-time athletics, and look at K-ville as a policy. The first question: why put students through this? Granted that K-ville is now a tradition and has a social aspect, it imposes pretty big costs on students. And those costs are what is known in economics as a deadweight loss: the loss to them is not a gain to anyone else. No one benefits from having students sleeping outdoors.

Why not, then, give away seats by lottery? This avoids the deadweight loss of six weeks in an unheated tent. But there is a slightly more subtle cost: a lottery does not ensure that the seats go to those who value them the most. Since there is little cost to signing up for the lottery, even those with a very modest desire to see the game will sign up, and some of them will get seats instead of more committed fans. From the standpoint of utilitarian philosophy, this is bad because it means that the allocation of seats will not produce as much total happiness as it could. And my guess is that it would be regarded as unfair by the hard-core fans.

So isn't there some way we can select those who really, really want to see the game, without making them waste huge amounts of time? For most goods, of course, there is such a mechanism: money.  Duke could sell tickets at a high price; only those who place a high value on tickets will end up buying them. And there is no waste because what is a cost to the students is revenue to the university (unlike the camping case, where the cost to the students is not a benefit to anyone).

This is the approach generally taken with alumni, businesses, and so on, but it would undoubtedly provoke outrage if applied to students. The problem is that students start with different endowments of money, and we tend to think that the key elements of the college experience--classes, dorms, extracurricular activities--ought  to be available to all regardless of parents' income. Most people would say that cheering for sports teams is one of those elements.

One solution would be to equalize the initial endowments, by giving all entering students artificial scrip money (call it, say, "ducats") that they can use for various things on campus. Students could then choose how to spend their ducats, and those who really, really want to see Duke and UNC play basketball could save up and spend all their ducats on that. Unfortunately, it's hard to think of what other possible uses for ducats could compete with The Game, and those that I can think of (pizza? mixers?) all end up costing the administration money.

My preferred solution goes in another direction: why not take the time now spent waiting in line and use it productively? Announce that any student who wants a seat at the Duke-UNC game must first spend, say, 100 hours (the number could be fine-tuned over time) doing pre-approved volunteer work. This not only separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of interest in the game, but also produces a hundred thousand hours a year of, for example, tutoring for disadvantaged kids in Raleigh and Durham and Greensboro. The program would also broaden the horizons of Duke students, give them an extra line for their resumes that looks a lot better than "Camped out on a patch of grass", send a message to students about what the University considers important, and polish the somewhat tarnished public image of Duke.

Sounds good to me, Duke. Get cracking.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Aspiring to the Third World

More and more lately, it seems as though the Republican vision for America is to turn it into the world's richest Third World country. Consider these common characteristics of Third World countries:

  • Life is extremely pleasant for the rich, and extremely difficult for everyone else.
  • Economic growth is hampered by poor transportation systems and crumbling infrastructure.
  • Environmental regulation is minimal.
  • The only widely respected public institution is the military.

Sound familiar? Now comes this story on India from The New York Times:

Doing nothing might be considered the epitaph of India’s political year in 2011. A ... national government ... demonstrated little political vision, analysts agree, and even less political backbone. An opposition ... seemed interested primarily in thwarting the government, offering little in the way of a constructive alternate agenda.

Political stalemate is not always a terrible thing, but the question is how much longer India can afford its increasingly dysfunctional politics. India’s dynamic economy, buffeted by the broader global slowdown and uncertainty about Europe, is wobbling precariously... private investors are spooked by governmental inaction or timidity on a long list of reforms....

Parliament, once the proud symbol of India’s democracy, has increasingly become a stage for televised acts of obstruction and political theater.

Well, at least the Republicans are here to save us from imitating Europe. Except I think by "Europe" they mean "the industrialized world."

Hercule Poirot, Meet The Pentagon's Inspector General

The New York Times reports on an investigation into a Defense Department program to curry favor with retired officers working as TV military analysts:

One former Pentagon official told the investigators that when Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general and NBC military analyst, “started challenging” Mr. Rumsfeld on air, he was told that Mr. Rumsfeld wanted him “immediately” removed from the invitation list because General McCaffrey was no longer considered a “team player.” Mr. Rumsfeld told investigators that he did not recall ordering General McCaffrey’s exclusion.

Wesley K. Clark, a retired four-star Army general who worked as a military analyst for CNN, told investigators he took it as a sign that the Pentagon “was displeased” with his commentary when CNN officials told him he would no longer be invited to special briefings for military analysts. General Clark told investigators that CNN officials made him feel as if he was less valued as a commentator because “he wasn’t trusted by the Pentagon.” At one point, he said, a CNN official told him that the White House had asked CNN to “release you from your contract as a commentator.”

...Investigators said that to understand the program’s intent, they had to rely on interviews with Mr. Rumsfeld’s former public affairs aides, including his spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke. Based on these interviews, the report said, investigators concluded that the “outreach activities were intended to serve as an open information exchange with credible third-party subject-matter experts” who could “explain military issues, actions and strategies to the American public.”

...The report found that at least 43 of the military analysts were affiliated with defense contractors. The inspector general’s office said it asked 35 of these analysts whether their participation in the program benefited their business interests. Almost all said no. Based on these answers, the report said, investigators were unable to identify any analysts who “profited financially” from their participation in the program.

In these economically straitened times, here's how we do an investigation: We ask people if they're guilty. If they say no, we go home.