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Superstars in the NBA playoffs, and the heightening of income inequality

Perhaps you have noticed that the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans swept the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in four games straight.  A month or two ago, it was not entirely obvious that the Pelicans would make the playoffs at all.  And all 22 ESPN analysts picked the Pelicans to lose the series.

The simplest theory about the Pelicans performance is that they have two superstars, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.  But while Portland was thought of as the superior team, they don’t have any player with the power and dynamism of Anthony Davis, whom I and many others consider to be a transcendent superstar.

One possible theory is this: an NBA series today is very well scouted and analyzed, and the players watch lots of tape.  Adjustments are made each game or even each quarter, based on a quantitative analysis of what is working and what is not.  This neutralizes many of the strategies of the lesser players, and furthermore having a good bench is worth less when it is easier to concentrate more of the minutes in the very best players.  It is not however possible to neutralize the impact of a transcendental superstar, even with lots of advance planning.  Those truly top players can improvise around any defenses thrown at them, or on the defensive end they can rapidly adjust to counter a new offensive attack.

Furthermore, in the playoffs effort is more or less equalized, as suddenly everyone is trying, even the bench players on the road.  That too raises the relative return to top talent.

In the playoffs, it is thus plausible that the quality and value of the transcendent superstars goes up.

As more and more of contemporary business becomes regularized and measured and motivated and based on well-ordered cooperating teams, might the same be true for the transcendent superstars of that world as well?  In essence, we’re always in the business “playoffs” these days, at least in Manhattan and Silicon Valley, and their transcendent superstars also become the difference-makers.

I do not seek to argue that is the main cause behind rising income inequaliity, but might it be one factor?

Of course my dream series for the finals is New Orleans vs. Philadelphia (Ben Simmons, Joel “built for…playoff basketball” Embiid.  That is hardly the most likely outcome, but it is now looking a lot more possible than one might have thought.  Philly, by the way, is the “all time hottest team entering the NBA playoffs,” at least by one measure.

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

Sunday assorted links

1. Last known survivor of the 19th century has passed away.  And a related thread.

2. Women working in the D.C. area do especially well.

3. “The longer the hikikomori remain apart from society, the more aware they become of their social failure,” explains Elan. “They lose whatever self-esteem and confidence they had, and the prospect of leaving home becomes ever more terrifying. Locking themselves in their room makes them feel ‘safe’.” Link here.

4. An old David Hendry paper on forecast failure.

5. Kenya estimate of the day: are C-section births at 50 percent?

6. Interview with Stephanie Koontz on marriage and gender.  Interview with David Perell.

7. Jared Diamond reviews David Reich (NYT).

The symphony orchestra and the Industrial Revolution

I heard Mozart’s 39th symphony in concert last night, and it occurred to me (once again) that I also was witnessing one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements.  Think about what went into the activity: each instrument, developed eventually to perfection and coordinated with the other instruments.  The system of tuning and the underlying principles of the music.  The acoustics of the music hall.  The sheet music on paper and the musical notation.  All of those features extremely well coordinated with the kind of compositional talent being produced in Central and Western Europe from say 1710 to 1920.  And by the mid-18th century most of the key features of this system were in place and by the early 19th century they were more or less perfected.

Sometimes I think of the Industrial Revolution as fundamentally a Cultural Revolution.  The first instantiation of this Cultural Revolution maybe was the rise of early Renaissance Art in Italy and in the Low Countries.  That too was based on a series of technological developments, including improved quality tempera paint, the development of oil painting, the resumption of bronze and marble techniques for sculpture, and the reintroduction of paper into Europe, which enabled artists’ sketches and drawings.

As with classical music, this unfolding of quality production was all based on extreme experimentation, a kind of scientific method, urbanization, and competing city-states.  There was also the rediscovery of knowledge from antiquity, and the importation or reimportation of science from China and the Arabic world, including the afore-mentioned knowledge of paper-making.

The creation of a book culture, and a culture of experimental science, could be cited as well.

Perhaps the only [sic] difference with the Industrial Revolution proper is that it came to sectors — energy, transport, and textiles — that boosted living standards immensely.  But arguably it was just another of a series of Cultural Revolutions that had their roots in late medieval times, with even classical music deriving ultimately from Franco-Flemish polyphony.  One of these Cultural Revolutions just happened to be Industrial.

Of course the earliest parts of Revolutions are often the best, as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us.

Saturday assorted links

1. Prom expenses are going up at a relatively slow rate, one economist calculates (WSJ).  And MIE: murder stories are now being in the Faroe Islands (also WSJ), where there is basically no murder.

2. Maybe emblematic maybe not (dead kangaroo edition).

3. Heathrow for sale.  And Sir Patrick Stewart calls for a second vote.

4. Unconscious bias training doesn’t seem to work.

5. “So although she does not receive any benefit of believing in God—because she doesn’t—she honestly believes she has deceived herself into believing in God…” Link here.

Why are Americans so loud?

From Julia Belluz at Vox:

…Americans are loud

A final point about why restaurants are so loud. This has nothing to do with restaurateurs or designers or acoustic engineers. It has to do with Americans — who I believe are a slightly louder people, on average.

As a Canadian working in the US, I am often struck by how much louder my fellow diners in restaurants seem to be, and how much more loudly the people I’m walking near on streets speak to one another or into their cellphones.

This is not a scientific observation, but it’s one that’s fueled Reddit discussions and even a ban on “loud Americans” in a pub in Ireland. Sietsema, for one, also agreed with my view. “When Europeans imitate Americans, they shout,” he said. “We tend to be louder people — we’re louder talkers; we’re bigger with our expressions.”

And Alex W. asks me: Since you’re so well traveled, is this true, and if so, why?  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. At least originally, Americans had much more space than did Europeans, and this is still true to some degree.  That induce norms of loudness, which have to some extent persisted.

2. America is a nation of immigrants, with English-language proficiency of varying quality, including historically.  For whatever reason, good or bad, we tend to shout a bit when the listener is not fluent in our language.

3. Taleb has suggested that higher status people shout less, talk in more hushed tones, and are more likely to whisper, to grab the attention of the crowd.  Perhaps America has fewer high status people to set social norms.  Or perhaps our high status people derive status from their wealth, and feel the need to emit fewer cultural signals, just as wealthy Americans often dress more poorly or eat a worse diet than European elites.

4. Characters on TV speak more loudly, and Americans watch more TV and admire and mimic it more.

5. Americans command a broader personal space, keeping a greater distance, and thus they have to speak more loudly to each other (and they feel Italians are intrusive with respect to how close they stand).

6. Loudness is perhaps a byproduct of individualism.

7. American culture values “forthrightness and self-confidence.”  Plus maybe it’s a regional thing?

What else?

How common is child marriage in the United States?

Approximately 6.2 of every 1,000 children surveyed had ever been married. Prevalence varied from more than 10 per 1,000 in West Virginia, Hawaii and North Dakota to less than four per 1,000 in Maine, Rhode Island and Wyoming. It was higher among girls than among boys (6.8 vs. 5.7 per 1,000), and was lower among white non‐Hispanic children (5.0 per 1,000) than among almost every other racial or ethnic group studied; it was especially high among children of American Indian or Chinese descent (10.3 and 14.2, respectively). Immigrant children were more likely than U.S.‐born children to have been married; prevalence among children from Mexico, Central America and the Middle East was 2–4 times that of children born in the United States. Only 20% of married children were living with their spouses; the majority of the rest were living with their parents.

That is from Alissa Koski and Jody Heymann, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Spain Italy fact of the day

Spaniards have became richer than Italians — a heartening indication of Spain’s economic revival but a worrying sign for Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, which is stuck in political gridlock. Spain’s per capita gross domestic product exceeded that of Italy in 2017, according to IMF data published this week that compare countries on a so-called “purchasing power parity” basis. The IMF also forecast that Spain would become 7 per cent richer than Italy over the next five years. A decade ago Italy was 10 per cent richer on the same basis.

That is from Valentina Romei from the FT.

Africa fact of the day

Sub-Saharan Africa is slipping into a new debt crisis, with 40 per cent of the region’s countries now at high risk of debt distress — double the proportion of five years ago.

Chad, South Sudan, the Republic of Congo and Mozambique moved into “debt distress” in 2017, the IMF said, which means they have defaulted or cannot service their debts. A much higher number have breached one of the fund’s thresholds for debt or servicing burdens, putting them into the IMF category of highly vulnerable to default.

That is from Chris Giles and David Pilling at the FT.

Meet me in Mongolia? (North Korea fact of the day)

As officials scramble to convene the hastily announced and once-unthinkable meeting in the coming weeks, the site itself remains an open question. It is unclear whether Mr. Kim’s fleet of Soviet-era planes can fly him more than a few thousand miles from North Korea.

“We know he has a plane, but it’s an old plane,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council aide who worked on Korea issues. “No one really knows if it works.”

Since taking power in 2011, Mr. Kim is not known to have flown outside his country, and the question of his transportation adds a layer of political complications to a fraught and uncertain summit meeting…

With the expected range of Mr. Kim’s planes, a trip to Hawaii or Guam, the closest United States territory to North Korea, would almost certainly require a refueling stop or a borrowed plane. Korea experts call that an indignity that Mr. Kim would not accept.

That is from Ali Watkins of the NYT.

How do people respond to shared trauma?

Studies of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19th, 1995, indicate that the traumatic event resulted in people seeking to strengthen their bonds with loved ones: Divorce rates went down, and birth rates went up.

While tragic, the Oklahoma City bombing provided a fortuitous case study. When domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out the truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, a total of 168 people died and more than 700 were injured. At the time it was the most calamitous terrorist attack in American history. Sixty-two percent of people in the city reported that they were personally affected by the events of that day. Forty percent said they knew someone who was injured or killed. The death of nineteen young children in the bombing was particularly traumatic.

Researchers have since studied the ripple effect the attack had on both divorce rates and birth rates. Family researchers Paul A. Nakonezny, Rebecca Reddick, and Joseph Lee Rodgers note that after the bombing, survivors were statistically less likely than the general population to divorce. Divorce rates, compared to the previous 10 years, declined in the Oklahoma City region in the months after the blast. Researchers thought that the impact would be felt most acutely by those closest to the bomb site, and indeed, the impact was highest among those who lived in counties most directly affected by the bombing, and lessened in Oklahoma counties located further away from downtown Oklahoma City.

In a separate study, Joseph Lee Rodgers, Craig A. St. John, and Ronnie Coleman discovered that Oklahoma City metropolitan area underwent a baby boom nine months after the bombing. In seventy-seven Oklahoma counties, both factors—marriage longevity and increased procreation—declined the further away the counties were from ground zero.

That is from Daily JStor.