Lessons from Lance

Lynne Kiesling

So now we at least know something direct from the horse’s mouth about Lance Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs before and during his long run of commanding Tour de France performances. In addition to the interview with Oprah Winfrey, this CBS 60 Minutes segment and this Cycling News interview with Armstrong provide fuller details. If you do not follow cycling or have not been following these events, Juliet Macur’s New York Times story from January 6 provides a good summary. (By the way, Juliet Macur, ESPN’s Bonnie Ford, and WSJ’s Jason Gay (here and here recently) are outstanding journalists and writers whose insights and knowledge have been essential reading on cycling for years, not just in dissecting l’affaire Armstrong).

Having followed cycling since the mid-1980s, my sense is that Armstrong is right that PED use is endemic in quite a few sports, including cycling. But it’s not universal. I also think that Armstrong is choosing his words carefully, and in a very calculated manner is trying to walk the fine line between saying enough to get some reputation capital back and be readmitted to professional racing (in triathlon this time, as in his early career) and saying so much that he re-triggers the federal lawsuit about his alleged conspiracy to distribute and use illegal substances, which would land him in jail.

What I find the most personally disturbing is his callous willingness to treat other people as means to an end, one end, his winning the Tour as many times as possible. The bullying and the backing of young, eager, naive athletes into Faustian corners is unforgivable. For that alone I’d deny him a USA Triathlon license. But I’m a very strong believer in private ordering through reputation and strong social norms, probably a stronger believer in them than the general population.

Some observers, including my good friends at Reason, argue that we should allow PED use in professional sports. I disagree, for two reasons, one physiological and one moral. In sports like cycling, the blood doping is intended to increase the oxygen content of the blood and to accelerate recovery from endurance activity. It does that, but it does that differently for each person, because each person has a different baseline blood oxygen content (hematocrit) and each person responds differently to augmentation. It’s not just a parallel shift that “raises all boats” equivalently. So if you are a rider with a low hematocrit who responds well to doping and you beat a rider with a higher hematocrit who responds less to doping, what have you achieved? Who’s the better cyclist on that day?

And that gets to the moral reason why I think we should continue to have sanctions against PED use in sports. Sports, whether professional or recreational, are meaningless unless they are grounded in the deeply human institutions of fair play. We have evolved a sense of fair play for a reason. Abandoning that institution with respect to PED use in professional sports would abandon fair play, would turn sports into nothing more than a “bread and circus” spectacle to entertain the masses in the manner of the Roman gladiators, and would feed back into youth sports with very perverse and negative incentives that would undermine the physical, psychological, and moral benefits we derive from participating in sports. If we relinquish fair play in sports we relegate sports to meaningless decadence. I can’t support that. Nor does the evolution of our institutions through human history match with that decision.

Which gets me to Roger Pielke Jr.’s very insightful post in which he argues that sports need stronger institutions. I really encourage you to read his post, because he does a very good job of summarizing the complicated institutional framework in which many sports operate. Cycling is an Olympic sport, and it also involves competitions (like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia) run by international organizations. It also has a governance organization, the UCI, which has come in for a lot of justifiable criticism regarding its transparency and its enforcement of its private rules against doping (in fact, I think it hasn’t come in for enough criticism and that lots of heads need to roll, but that’s for another post). Roger’s post also highlights the awkward nexus of the International Olympic Committee (and the USOC) and its private sanctions against doping, the non-governmental organization that is charged with monitoring and enforcing these sanctions (WADA, and in the US, USADA), and the treatment of PED use in sports by various international governments. In particular, in many other countries enforcement does involve governments and PED use violations are subject to criminal prosecution, while under US law they are treated as private matters as long as the substances are not themselves illegal. Of course, this line gets crossed all the time, as we see when Congress gets a burr under its saddle and hauls ex-baseball players up to testify about PED use.

And that’s where I think l’affaire Armstrong and the US government’s pursuit of him and how USADA plays into that should make us all pause and consider the implications of this government power more broadly. Last week in Wired, Brian Alexander wrote that the Armstrong case and USADA’s role in it should make you, and me, and each of us worry:

So here’s the thing you need to know: The USADA takedown of Armstrong matters, and it could effect everybody. Because it will enhance the power and reach of a private, non-profit business that has managed to harness the power of the federal government in what’s quickly becoming a brand new war on drugs … with all the same pitfalls brought to you by the first war on drugs.

The USADA is a private outfit. Yet it gets taxpayer money. And it has existed in this weird legal nether world since its creation in 1999 at the instigation of the International Olympic Committee, United States Olympic Committee, and President Clinton’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The USADA is designated by the U.S. Congress as the company that handles anti-doping for this country, because the World Anti-Doping Treaty — a UNESCO-promulgated document that the U.S. signed with almost no discussion – obligates the U.S. to do a number of things, which includes conforming our laws to the international anti-doping code. …

The USADA has wanted Armstrong for years. To it, and to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Armstrong was Moby Dick: If they could kill the whale – and do it without a raft of positive tests to show Armstrong doped – a new model of anti-doping would be enshrined into practice. And that’s just what happened.

Piggy-backing on a federal investigation, the USADA was able to pressure Armstrong teammates to confess to doping and implicate Armstrong … with no positive test results. It was an FBI-style investigation spanning multiple countries, but there was no “smoking syringe” found stuck in Armstrong’s arm. …

So while you might wish athletes didn’t dope — I do, too — and want action taken to combat doping, you might also want to be careful about what you’re wishing for. Especially since sports is taking on a broader definition that includes amateurs, low-level marathon runners, and even your kid’s high school football team.

I’ve excerpted Alexander’s argument, but I do encourage you to read it fully for a better understanding of exactly how sobering the implications are.

That’s what I think there are a lot of disturbing lessons from Lance, and from the USADA’s pursuit of him. Both his craven conduct and lack of character and the sinister implications of his prosecution bode ill in ways that will diminish sports that we love, as spectators and as participants. And they increase the authority of the state in ways that we’ve already seen are destructive.

Hoffman on price gouging (in which I take on claims made in a 7-year old blog post)

While seeking out the guns and ammo price gouging post at Mother Jones (see link here) I came across a post-Katrina 2005 Political Mojo post by Bradford Plumer on price gouging that I don’t recall having seen before, and it provides a link to a Dave Hoffman post-Katrina post at PrawfsBlawg that actually advances some empirical claims in favor of state anti-price gouging laws. Most advocates of state price gouging controls rely on arguments that come down to “I don’t think it is fair so those sellers shouldn’t be able to do it.”

(ASIDE: There is an empirical claim embedded there too – whether or not the advocate actually thinks post-emergency price increases are unfair – but the feelings of editorialists are not normally significant factors in formal policy analysis.)

Here are a few of Hoffman’s more substantive claims:

  1. “In civil emergencies, markets don’t work to clear information in rational ways.”
  2. “High prices will not serve to reduce demand for, say, water and gasoline, over the short term if folks think their lives are going to depend on having such commodities nearby.”
  3. “Price gouging regulations do two things to reduce panic and regulate demand.  First, they increase trust in market transactions (an SEC-like role) and thus will act to reduce “panic demand” in emergencies without increasing price.”
  4. Second, the regulations – when publicized appropriately – have the same information forcing effect as higher prices themselves, teaching people that there are supply interruptions and they should change their use patterns until conditions improve.”

My responses:

1. Claim #1 depends on what he means by “rational,” but my expectation is that prices do the same work of helping coordinate buyers and sellers during emergencies as before and after. Yes it is true that during times of quick changes in conditions that more of those prices may turn out to be “wrong” in the sense of too high or too low, but the pre-emergency price is almost assuredly wrong in this same sense and so will likely guarantee that outcomes won’t achieve his rationality standard however he chooses to define that term.

In any case, with a manageable definition of “rationality,” we could explore empirically whether freely-adjusting prices do better or worse than alternative price rules in helping to better clear information rationally. (By “clear information in rational ways” I take Hoffman to be referring to the market’s imperfect-but-still-normally-useful ability to reveal where goods are most highly needed.)

2. It is absolutely true that when it comes to cases in which our lives hang in the balance, consumers will do things that would otherwise be crazy. Would you pay $100 for a bottle of water? Normally no, but if I would die without it then yes. (And if I were about to die for lack of water, I should probably go to the emergency room, not the supermarket. The irony, of course, is that the emergency room would charge $100 to provide the water.)

As an empirical claim about consumer behavior, at least with respect to almost all market transactions during civil emergencies covered by price gouging laws, I’d say he is wrong but at least this is potentially testable. But to the extent we are talking about life and death, I’d say the relevance of his point to price gouging policy is essentially nil. A hurricane hits the Gulf Coast and suddenly state officials in New York and Massachusetts are warning gasoline retailers not to use the hurricane as an excuse to raise prices excessively. No New Yorker is going to die from a Gulf Coast hurricane because gasoline prices on Long Island jumped from $3.50 to $4.75 for a few days.

Of the millions of retail transactions conducted under activated state price gouging regulations, my guess is that fewer than 0.01 of a percent of them involved life and death. In the actual post-emergency retail sales covered by most price gouging laws consumers are quite capable of weighing whether they need four days of bottled water or fourteen,  whether they really need to top off a nearly full gasoline tank again, and if they can get by with two batteries instead of eight, and so on.

3. The empirical claim suggested by standard economics seems contrary to Hoffman’s claim on panic buying. Since emergencies are times of heightened demand and limited supply, some panic demand and hoarding behavior is typical. Artificially low prices are more likely to result in shortages, therefore are more likely to prompt consumers to rush to stock up on supplies. Price gouging controls, in this standard economics story, promote “panic buying.” Two things that would reduce panic buying: (a) consumer confidence that stores will not run out of goods, and/or (b) belief that prices will tend to fall rather than increase over the next few days.

It might be the case that with price gouging laws on the books a consumer doesn’t have to worry about unjustified price increases, but I don’t see the connection between added trust in the market and a consumer’s decision to stock up on supplies right away rather than later. I feel like I must be missing Hoffman’s point.

4. The claim that publicized price gouging enforcement will yield the same kind of “forcing effect” of higher prices, i.e. induce equivalent conservation of newly scarcer goods and services, is eminently testable. The comparable situation in electric power might by those hot summer afternoons during which the utility (mayor, governor, etc.) calls on power consumers to help protect system reliability by voluntarily cutting demand. These voluntary calls for conservation work in the strict technical sense that some people will reduce their consumption. But compare the response rate to that among power consumers with a direct economic incentive to cut back consumption during these power system emergencies, and I’m sure publicizing emergency conditions has nothing at all like the same kind of “forcing effect” as simple economic incentives.

And, of course, it is simply not possible that, say, Governor Christie’s disaster declaration could contain all of the necessary information about which goods are now going to become how-much-more scarce in which parts of the state for how long, and how much one consumer’s needs should weigh against another consumer’s needs, etc.

Hoffman declares his motives in his concluding paragraph: “I dislike folks who intentionally profit on others’ misfortune.” Personally, I’m not so worried about intentions and I’m not  worried about degree of profits. I simply want to support public policies that are best at helping people in distress get useful goods and services at reasonable terms and conditions.

Now, of course, Hoffman is for helping people in distress just like I’m for helping people in distress. The debate here isn’t which one of us secretly hates puppies, but rather which policies will work best for the people affected by emergencies. My empirical claim is that normal public policies towards retailers and pricing do a better job in helping people in distress than anti-price gouging laws do.

ALSO: See Hoffman’s follow-up post, still from September 2005, in which he reacts to some of the comments to his first piece. I now notice that some of those 7+ year old comments beat me to the punch on points I’ve made above. Hoffman suggests the ‘hotel problem’ is more interesting than the gasoline station problem. Here is my ‘hotel problem’ price gouging argument: Hotel rate price gouging during snowstorms can promote public safety.

Mother Jones on guns and ammo price gouging

Michael Giberson

A post at Mother Jones‘s Political Mojo blog sees a silver lining in current price gouging on guns (see “Gun Lovers Freaking Out Over Price Gouging“): “It might help keep sales in check—at least temporarily—while Congress gets around to thinking about thinking about considering an assault-weapon ban.”

Well, technically speaking, current prices and current sales reflect efforts to coordinate supplies during the current short term spike in demand. If someone wanted to actually limit the number of legal sales they should favor a capped low price rather than a market-driven high price.* Currently the high price is motivating a lot of effort to bring more guns to market; a capped low price would do much more to keep sales in check.

*Gun control advocates should note that the effect of a binding price cap would be to promote legal work-arounds (i.e. “we only sell that model with this handy $150 instruction guide”) or simply motivate more dealers to sell on the black market. In the very short run a price cap would lead to shortages, but over time smart people find ways to overcome barriers.

A call for controlled experimentation in California’s energy efficiency programs

Michael Giberson

UC-Berkeley economist Catherine Wolfram has an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee advocating the state use controlled experimentation to discover with energy efficiency programs work best. As she explains, retailers are increasingly using experimentation and advanced data analysis to discover how to increase sales. Surely, she suggests, when planning to spend nearly half a billion tax dollars annually on energy efficiency California ought to devote a bit of effort into separating programs that sound good and work well from those that merely sound good.

[HT to Elizabeth M. Bailey at Energy Economics Exchange.]

Al Roth, Matchmaker

Michael Giberson

Stanford’s alumni association magazine has a good article on recent economics Nobelist Al Roth. Several things about the article will trigger resistance among some free market readers, beginning with the title (“The Visible Hand”) and the subhead (A new breed of economist, Alvin Roth brings an engineering sensibility to fixing markets.). Deep into the article, this too: “Thanks to guys like Al Roth and powerful software … we were able to put all our incompatible pairs in there and just hit a button and the computer would spit out the answer.”

In fact just this morning I was just re-reading James Buchanan’s remarks about differences between economics as a science of allocation versus economics as a science of exchange – Buchanan was definitely in the exchange camp – and perhaps Buchanan would wonder whether or not these game-theoretic algorithms constituted a kind of applied economics or perhaps were something more akin to mere logistics tools. But in that article (“General Implications of Subjectivism in Economics”) Buchanan does suggest that game theory, in that it can frame situations from the point of view of economic agents, might constitute a valuable tool for understanding economics as a science of exchange.

But it is clear enough from the Stanford Magazine article that more than logistics is going on in Roth’s efforts. In all of the matching schemes Roth has helped develop, the incentives created for participants are a key constraint. It isn’t a mere matter of minimizing fuels costs for a delivery fleet, Roth is using economics to meddle with the rules of particular kinds of economic systems in order to bring about better arrangements as valued by the participants themselves. These efforts are not about imposing allocations, they are about enabling better exchanges in complex environments.

[HT to Daniel Cole, who draws attention to the dwarf-tossing issues raised at the end of the article.]


Would five EPA commissioners be better than one EPA administrator?

Michael Giberson

Steven Hayward makes the unremarkable observation that the EPA is politicized followed by the somewhat surprising recommendation to fix things by adding more political appointees at the top! He recommends a five-person commission structure within which no more than three are of the same party affiliation, similar to the arrangement governing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and several other regulatory agencies.

Hayward explains, “The EPA’s single-administrator model … is based on what amounts to a conceit that some policy matters are beyond politics or meaningful controversy. This is the apotheosis of the Progressive Era ideal, or rather myth, of enlightened administration by neutral experts. It is also a tactic to deny that what are deeply political administrative decisions are in fact political.” As Hayward points out, a virtue of a multi-member commission over a single administrator is the opportunity for diverse points of view to be represented at the top and for minority views to get public airing.

New group formed to promote research in U.S. electric power markets

Michael Giberson

Last week saw announcement of the Electric Markets Research Foundation. The group plans “to fund unbiased research that will examine the track records of centralized electricity markets and traditionally regulated markets in providing affordable and reliable supplies of power as well as meeting clean energy, transmission and environmental needs.” The news release continues:

“There is a dearth of research available on this market-versus-regulation debate and little analysis has been conducted on this 50-state experiment. The Electric Markets Research Foundation intends to address this by supporting research by academics and industry experts on major electric market issues, including customer rates, reliability and service,” said Bruce S. Edelston, the foundation’s president and the driving force behind the research effort.

The governance group looks a little heavy on DC-oriented policy folks, except for Albert Danielsen, a long-time professor of economics at the University of Georgia and executive director of the Bonbright Center for Public Utilities at U. of G. I guess we’ll have to count on Danielsen to keep an eye on the lobbyists.

I’m looking forward to their efforts.