Bobo has a question in “Baseball or Soccer?” He asks if your life more like a baseball game or a soccer match, and says you might be surprised. “Jack Chicago” from Chicago wasn’t surprised. In his comment he said “I find myself ill-prepared for another trite ‘life as a sport analogy’. The entire column is simplistic and lacking in any depth.” In “Fat Britain” Mr. Cohen says once we’ve found our lunch our instinct is to avoid becoming someone else’s. Prof. Krugman asks “Who Wants a Depression?” He considers “sadomonetarism,” the interests of the 0.01 percent and the politicization of economics. Here’s Bobo:
Is life more like baseball, or is it more like soccer?
Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game.
Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.
As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.
Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.
This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold. As Nicholas Christakis and others have shown, if your friends are obese, you’re likely to be obese. If your neighbors play fair, you are likely to play fair. We all live within distinct moral ecologies. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without being much aware of it.
Then there is the structure of your network. There is by now a vast body of research on how differently people behave depending on the structure of the social networks. People with vast numbers of acquaintances have more job opportunities than people with fewer but deeper friendships. Most organizations have structural holes, gaps between two departments or disciplines. If you happen to be in an undeveloped structural hole where you can link two departments, your career is likely to take off.
Innovation is hugely shaped by the structure of an industry at any moment. Individuals in Silicon Valley are creative now because of the fluid structure of failure and recovery. Broadway was incredibly creative in the 1940s and 1950s because it was a fluid industry in which casual acquaintances ended up collaborating.
Since then, studies show, theater social networks have rigidified, and, even if you collaborate with an ideal partner, you are not as likely to be as creative as you would have been when the global environment was more fertile.
Finally, there is the power of the extended mind. There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited.
Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.
Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany.
Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life.
Now here’s Mr. Cohen:
Britain is fat, unacceptably fat — fatter than ever before. There is no escaping this development. Turn on the radio and chances are some new report on obesity will be the subject of debate, with handwringing over the “Americanization” of Britain, and hectoring BBC-style questioning as to what can be done.
A recent report in the Lancet medical journal found that 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women in the United Kingdom are either overweight or obese. This put Britain at the top of the supersized league table among big European countries (the likes of Malta and Iceland outdid it). More than a quarter of children are overweight or obese.
The causes are scarcely different from elsewhere in a fattening world: cheap availability of calorie-dense food (burgers, fries, chips, sodas); “food deserts” in poor areas where healthy fare is hard to find and expensive; sedentary lives spent seated in front of the computer or sprawled on the couch with “Game of Thrones” blaring; too much sugar, fat and fructose; broken or weakened families where children forage in the fridge for prepared meals and snack all day rather than gathering for a family meal; speeded-up societies that breed bored, stressed, impulsive and compulsive behavior, including binge eating and constant eating.
As Tony Goldstone, a consultant endocrinologist at London’s Hammersmith Hospital put it to me: “In the developed world we don’t eat because we are hungry.” We eat because everywhere we look there’s a superabundance of food and we’re hardwired through evolution to keep our body weight up.
The effects, as elsewhere, include a sharp increase in diabetes. Since 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes in Britain has more than doubled to about three million. It is estimated that by 2025 there will be some five million diabetics. Direct and indirect health costs related to spreading obesity range into the billions of dollars.
The new social divide sees the skinny affluent at their Knightsbridge gym raving about their personal trainer and favorite farmers’ market, and the pot-bellied poor guzzling kebabs and fries. The counterintuitive association of poverty and obesity is an indicator of how much the world has changed. Survival is still an instinct but it is no longer an issue. More people today are overweight than malnourished.
Goldstone said he comes away from obesity conferences feeling gloomy. Telling fat people to get thin through dieting is, he suggests, like “telling an asthmatic to breathe more.” Cognitive control cedes to the force of instinct. “Who says that the will can overcome biology when biology trained us to get food when scarce?” Goldstone said. “We evolved to prefer foods high in fat and sugar because they contain the calories we need to reproduce.”
Our urges are out of sync with our environment. The environment has changed. Urges have not. Our instinct is to eat and rest. We have no instinct to stop eating and be active. We eat to survive and then want to rest because we may need energy to flee some wild beast. Once we’ve found our lunch, our instinct is to avoid being someone else’s.
It may not seem like lying on a couch is part of our survival gene but it is. David Haslam, the chairman of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, told me: “It is in our interest to eat and be lazy. Put people in an environment like the current one that promotes eating and laziness and they will oblige.” It’s their genetic inclination.
So I’m gloomy too. I eat more in the hours before I have to write a column. My instinct is then to rest. I cannot because I have to write. My impulse is then to eat again as a way, for a moment, not to write. This only augments the desire to rest. If deadlines did not exist I’d be enormous. Everyone these days plays such mental games, their instincts and environment at war with each other.
This does not mean there is nothing to be done about fat Britain or fat America. Exercise can be encouraged in big and small ways (promoting use of bikes, making sure hotels no longer hide the stairs). Make restaurant chains post calorie information. Improve labeling (Goldstone, a diabetic, told me he often can’t work out from current labels how many carbohydrates a product contains). Oblige supermarkets to move sweets from the checkouts, as Tesco has agreed to do. Get healthy food into schools and poor areas. Haslam told me about an experiment at a Morrisons supermarket where cardboard avatars of a diabetes consultant, a midwife or a doctor pointed to healthy foods. The results were positive. And, for those who can afford it, there’s bariatric surgery.
Nonetheless, the world will get fatter for the foreseeable future because humans in their ingenuity have created a near-perfect environment for the propagation of fatness.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
One unhappy lesson we’ve learned in recent years is that economics is a far more political subject than we liked to imagine. Well, duh, you may say. But, before the financial crisis, many economists — even, to some extent, yours truly — believed that there was a fairly broad professional consensus on some important issues.
This was especially true of monetary policy. It’s not that many years since the administration of George W. Bush declared that one lesson from the 2001 recession and the recovery that followed was that “aggressive monetary policy can make a recession shorter and milder.” Surely, then, we’d have a bipartisan consensus in favor of even more aggressive monetary policy to fight the far worse slump of 2007 to 2009. Right?
Well, no. I’ve written a number of times about the phenomenon of “sadomonetarism,” the constant demand that the Federal Reserve and other central banks stop trying to boost employment and raise interest rates instead, regardless of circumstances. I’ve suggested that the persistence of this phenomenon has a lot to do with ideology, which, in turn, has a lot to do with class interests. And I still think that’s true.
But I now think that class interests also operate through a cruder, more direct channel. Quite simply, easy-money policies, while they may help the economy as a whole, are directly detrimental to people who get a lot of their income from bonds and other interest-paying assets — and this mainly means the very wealthy, in particular the top 0.01 percent.
The story so far: For more than five years, the Fed has faced harsh criticism from a coalition of economists, pundits, politicians and financial-industry moguls warning that it is “debasing the dollar” and setting the stage for runaway inflation. You might have thought that the continuing failure of the predicted inflation to materialize would cause at least a few second thoughts, but you’d be wrong. Some of the critics have come up with new rationales for unchanging policy demands — it’s about inflation! no, it’s about financial stability! — but most have simply continued to repeat the same warnings.
Who are these always-wrong, never-in-doubt critics? With no exceptions I can think of, they come from the right side of the political spectrum. But why should right-wing sentiments go hand in hand with inflation paranoia? One answer is that using monetary policy to fight slumps is a form of government activism. And conservatives don’t want to legitimize the notion that government action can ever have positive effects, because once you start down that path you might end up endorsing things like government-guaranteed health insurance.
But there’s also a much more direct reason for those defending the interests of the wealthy to complain about easy money: The wealthy derive an important part of their income from interest on bonds, and low-rate policies have greatly reduced this income.
Complaints about low interest rates are usually framed in terms of the harm being done to retired Americans living on the interest from their CDs. But the interest receipts of older Americans go mainly to a small and relatively affluent minority. In 2012, the average older American with interest income received more than $3,000, but half the group received $255 or less. The really big losers from low interest rates are the truly wealthy — not even the 1 percent, but the 0.1 percent or even the 0.01 percent. Back in 2007, before the slump, the average member of the 0.01 percent received $3 million (in 2012 dollars) in interest. By 2011, that had fallen to $1.3 million — a loss equivalent to almost 9 percent of the group’s 2007 income.
That’s a lot, and it surely explains a lot of the hysteria over Fed policy. The rich are even more likely than most people to believe that what’s good for them is good for America — and their wealth and the influence it buys ensure that there are always plenty of supposed experts eager to find justifications for this attitude. Hence sadomonetarism.
Which brings me back to the politicization of economics.
Before the financial crisis, many central bankers and economists were, it’s now clear, living in a fantasy world, imagining themselves to be technocrats insulated from the political fray. After all, their job was to steer the economy between the shoals of inflation and depression, and who could object to that?
It turns out, however, that using monetary policy to fight depression, while in the interest of the vast majority of Americans, isn’t in the interest of a small, wealthy minority. And, as a result, monetary policy is as bound up in class and ideological conflict as tax policy.
The truth is that in a society as unequal and polarized as ours has become, almost everything is political. Get used to it.