Thursday, September 12, 2013

Boardwalk Stillwater

This is really a story about prohibition. And prohibition is at its heart a story about economics.

When you make something illegal that is demanded, you get a black market. In this case the thing demanded is successful college football. The prohibitions are on free-market transactions that connect those providing value, college football players, and those who are consuming the value provided, college football fans. When value cannot fully be reflected between suppliers and demanders, externalities exist—in this case positive externalities meaning the market is undersupplying college football along some dimensions*. The market abhors externalities and is only prevented from erasing them by transactions costs that outweigh the benefits. Transactions costs cast shadows upon markets. When those transactions costs are high enough, the communication process revealing gains from trade can break down significantly. Hence, black-market transactions take the place of open-market transactions.

Black markets have two significant downsides: they aren’t as efficient as open, free markets and they come with baggage (technically speaking, negative unintended consequences). Notably in the second case, black markets incentivize suppliers who aren’t as sensitive to the transactions costs as the typical supplier. Additionally, black-market transactions take on forms that are both less efficient in an economic sense and less sensitive to the standards the original prohibitions attempted to uphold. To wit: Gangsters are successful because they are more willing and able to break the rules and the rules attempt to prevent what otherwise would come to be.

The local response has been predictable in nature and course but surprising in intensity. The clan has been attacked, and all members are called to unquestioned defense. I believe most of the response track has followed something similar to the stages of grieving, and I predict it will continue in such a fashion.

First has come Denial. This couldn’t be true because I don’t want it to be can be read between the lines of many responses. Some examples have been along the lines of: “The players making the accusations are disgruntled former troublemakers,” “There are no documents revealed proving these payments happened,” “One of the authors is an OU alum who dislikes OSU.”

Next will come Rationalization. I expect the group response to be along the lines of: “This happens everywhere, why single us out?” “Most of this isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things,” “These events are taken out of context; it isn’t that bad.”

Next will come Acceptance along with Anger (I said similar to the stages of grieving, not mirroring it). Expect both some contrivance and sorrow along with a few scapegoats offered up. Eventually, though, someone significant must be to blame, and that person or group of persons will have to pay. Remember, I’m not saying what the NCAA or general public response will be. I am predicting the response from inside the community affected.

As for the response from general public opinion, the Oklahoma State brand has been badly tarnished. The labels these accusations will bring will not easily or quickly be erased. Assuming the accusations are completely true, which I do not, but I do believe they are largely and substantively true, I have already found and expect further to find interesting inconsistencies. There is what sounds bad given our mores: marijuana use along with other drugs, sexual arrangements, payment of college athletes for work performed (playing football well) and work not performed (housework, construction, etc.), and academic leniency and fraud. And then there is what does not sound so bad again given our mores including what is absent in the accusations: alcohol use, athlete exploitation, and unrealistic academic expectations. It is like our social norms on toleration and prohibition were determined by coin flip.

Take us home, Radiohead.

*There is nuance here. The aggregate supply of college football may be sufficient or excessive due to subsidies but at the same time there are specific shortages. For example, it could be that resources aren’t reaching their optimal use by being underemployed—football quality is too low at Oklahoma State and is too high elsewhere.

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