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.

Why do we ignore women’s sports?

Lynne Kiesling

I’ve scheduled this to post while I’m out on one of my long rides … this interesting Outside magazine article explores why women’s sports attract so little attention. The article focuses on cycling:

The Giro d’Italia Femminile is the biggest race you’ve never heard of. Covering 961.4 kilometers of Italian countryside over nine days, 127 athletes compete for one of the sport’s biggest prizes—the pink jersey. And in 2010, an American won it all. But as is usual for women’s cycling, the coverage was muted.

Again in 2012, American cyclists should be in the news: Evelyn Stevens became only the second American—after Lance Armstrong—to win the spring classic Fleche Wallone. She also recently won a stage at the Giro d’Italia Femminile. And Kristin Armstrong is a favorite to defend her gold medal in the time trial at the London Olympics. There’s even a new race on the map: The Exergy Tour, a women’s only stage race with $100,000 on the line. But for some reason, nobody seems to notice.

Some women’s sports have had some success — tennis is popular, and even though soccer and basketball are both popular and have spawned professional leagues, those leagues have struggled to maintain enough teams and enough profit.

As with most human phenomena, I think the reasons here are economic, cultural, and psychological, and the article explores all of them. First, the economic: sponsors and media, and the connection between them, which has a chicken-and-egg tension to it. Sponsors want media coverage, but which comes first — does media coverage attract sponsorship, or does sponsorship attract media attention? Or is the relationship among sport, sponsorship, and media more complex than that? And what constitutes media in such a decentralized technology environment as we inhabit and create? In women’s cycling, for example, two big team sponsors are Luna (part of Clif) and Lululemon; it’s a good bet that the athletes present role models to recreational athletes who can look at them and see something of themselves and their own athletic aspirations in them. Those women may turn that association into transactions.

That’s where I think the cultural and psychological intersect with the economic. Should sponsors expect that women’s sports will increase spending/transactions primarily from women? Speaking personally, I know I consciously direct my spending toward products that are thoughtful in their production of products for women athletes. Women account for the majority of consumer spending, but is the pool of women athletes too small a share? Do sponsors of women’s sports deliver meaningful commercial messages and aspirations to men, in ways that at the margin affect their spending decisions? Does media have to “use sex” to sell women’s sports to male spectators? Should it?

And how will social media affect that revenue model? Will the ability to generate social media attention for sports that are out of the mainstream, including women’s sports, increase the value that sponsors attach to sponsorship? I think we’re seeing that with men’s cycling, and given how strong the US women cyclists are for this year’s Olympics, I think women’s cycling may be able to leverage some of that combination of strength and social media into more awareness and media opportunities and revenue and sponsorship.

What do you think? Why do women’s sports attract less fandom, sponsorship, and media?

Strava

Lynne Kiesling

Wired has a nice article today on Strava, a really good online training tracking site. I like Strava, and have used it for about a year (in addition to Training Peaks). It has a clean design, good features, and a set of members that includes some pro cyclists who are fun to follow and see what rides they are doing. If you are a cyclist and/or runner, I recommend that you check it out. You can be as social with it or private with it as you like.

Strava follows a “freemium” revenue model, with a free membership and paid membership that unlocks more features (as does Training Peaks), which enables them to monetize the site and aligns well with the interests of a lot of Type-A athletes in having more ways to analyze their data. So far it seems to be working well for them financially compared to other tech start-ups.

Strava’s other distinctive feature is the ability to identify specific route segments and compare your performance over time and across others, again a good feature to appeal to Type-A endurance athletes. I’m obviously not sufficiently Type-A about it, though, because I used it for 6 months before even noticing that the person with the best time on that segment is designated KOM or QOM (king of the mountain/queen of the mountain). It is motivating to get an email saying that someone just took my QOM.

One feature I wish it had was the ability to “favorite” or bookmark particular routes or rides. For example, pro cyclist Ted King rode a bunch of great routes in Aspen last year, and when I was there in May I wanted to look at his routes. Either it’s not possible, or it was too non-obvious for even a techie like me to figure out how to look at his rides from a year ago.

Nutrition experience, research, and orthodoxy, with some economics parallels

Lynne Kiesling

Last week was our spring break, and I finally took some time to read Gary Taubes’ 2008 book Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes is an investigative science journalist who has been writing for years about the science of nutrition and epidemiology, and the book focuses on a long, careful, detailed narrative about how such science has evolved since the mid-19th century. One of the themes that emerges is that some of the most prominent researchers, particularly those advancing the dual hypotheses that fat causes heart disease/overeating causes obesity, did not test their hypotheses for falsification using controlled trials in designing their research, and are also personally invested in doing research that “proves them right”. Thus, Taubes argues, an orthodoxy has formed around these hypotheses when he finds the scientific support for them lacking, and similarly finds support for an alternate hypothesis — refined carbohydrates cause heart disease and obesity. But the orthodoxy resists testing that alternate hypothesis.

I have personal interest in this topic based on my own experience. As a high metabolism athlete for all of my life, I grew up being able to eat almost anything in unrestricted quantities. But when I got my first faculty job out of grad school (at WIlliam & Mary, yay!) in 1992, the combination of teaching and research duties with moving to a swampy climate against which my body rebelled meant a reduction in my activity, bloating because of the humidity, and weight gain. Without really thinking about it (because I hadn’t had to before), I reduced my meat consumption and substituted into (refined and unrefined) carbs. The next two years were right out of Taubes’ book — reduction in calories to manage weight while increasing exercise, but not having enough energy to actually make it meaningful, culminating in what is now known as metabolic syndrome complete with insulin resistance, hormone imbalance, and symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome. I then spent two years revamping my diet to reduce refined carbs, include more animal and vegetable protein at every meal, and monitor my hormone and energy levels, and succeeded in reversing all negative symptoms. I returned to the energy levels that have enabled me to do longer and longer distance cycling and triathlon endurance events and the demanding training for them. Even though I don’t eat low-fat, my triglycerides are so low that my doctor marvels at it. Taubes’ argument is consistent with my experience.

Economist Russ Roberts has been experimenting with his diet and exercise for the past six months, following broadly the same principles that I do (including the refined carbs on the weekend), and he reported in on Friday: 20 pounds lost, more energy, feeling of satiation, low triglycerides. Again, consistent with my experience.

You may know Russ for his outstanding EconTalk podcast series, and in November 2011 he interviewed Gary Taubes. The conversation was interesting and informative, and the podcast page lists lots of resources for further reading. One theme that Russ developed in the discussion was that in both nutrition research and economics research, the issues come up of orthodoxy and structuring research questions in ways that generate falsifiable hypotheses when you are studying such a complex, dynamic system as either the human diet/cardio/endocrine system or the human economy. The human traits that incline us toward orthodoxy, whether it’s wanting to prove ourselves right or appeal to authority or some other trait, have led to models and hypotheses that are not supportable or not even meaningfully testable/falsifiable. So for me reading Taubes’ book was a good cautionary tale of the value of humility beyond the analysis of low-carb/low-fat nutrition.

Another insight that comes up in the book that I would add to Russ’ comparison with macroeconomics is heterogeneity. Taubes is careful to point out that individuals have different metabolic experiences and achieve homeostasis with different combinations of fat, carbs, etc., so while low-carb nutrition may allow some people to strike a healthy heart and weight balance, others may be able to eat more carbs and do the same. Heterogeneity means that there’s no one-size-fits-all hypothesis … and as any Austrian macroeconomist will tell you, that’s the argument they put forth about macroeconomic models and aggregation. Heterogeneity in the capital structure in reality means that models abstracting from such heterogeneity are more likely to mislead.

Biking and climbing and driving … and eating!

Lynne Kiesling

I am just back from a long weekend trip to Denver, to participate in Sunday’s Deer Creek Challenge bike ride. We did the metric century — 62 miles, with 7,022′ of elevation gain along the way. Pretty daunting for a flatlander! But this event was my “A race” (although not a race, but triathletes tend to prioritize events as a way to structure training across multiple events), so I have been doing some rides with climbs and lots of mileage … and, of course, in the midwest we have the perennial “headwinds are hill training” opportunity. So although I was a bit slow, I got it done, and it was a gorgeous ride.

We drove from Chicago to Denver (in large part due to my flying boycott thanks to the TSA, our feckless Congress that does not rein them in, and the airlines that go along with it to reduce their security liabililty), stopping in Omaha for one night on the way there. As an enthusiast for early American colonial and frontier history, I was excited to drive through the parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado that I’d not seen before, and I thought the high plains in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado were particularly beautiful; I love the combination of rolling hills and semi-arid landscape.

In Omaha we visited the Art Deco Union Station, which now houses the Durham Museum, so it’s a great stop if you like history and architecture. But the highlight of our Omaha visit was dinner at the Boiler Room, a fantastic restaurant in, you guessed it, an old renovated boiler room for The Bemis Company in the Old Market area of town. The food was fresh, seasonal, and creative, and we happened in to a special winemaker dinner. Outstanding from beginning to end.

We didn’t intend for this trip to be a foodie trip, but then in Denver we ate at Potager, which was also outstanding. Again fresh and seasonal, with a great wine list; melon soup with shrimp, zucchini carpaccio, lots of dishes based on just-harvested peaches, wonderful bread.

Our drive home was a bit of a quick blast, but we did stop in Des Moines yesterday for lunch at Smokey D’s BBQ, which was very good. We shared beef brisket and pork ribs; both were really good, but the brisket was especially good. Their sauces ranged from mild to extra-fiery, which definitely lived up to its name.

All in all, a fun late-summer road trip.

Protesting the crime of cycling while skirted

Lynne Kiesling

I’ll give you three guesses what I’m planning on today — bike bike bike bike bike! The forecast looks promising, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a long holiday weekend than outside on my bike, in my kayak, etc. So today’s post is bike themed.

In late May, a Dutch tourist was cycling around New York City while wearing a skirt. A police officer stopped her, asked for her ID, and reprimanded her for cycling while skirted … because she was distracting drivers! As Gothamist put it, biking while sexy. Whether this was a ludicrous overextension of authority or a ludicrous case of projection on his part (or he was just trying to hit on her in a lame sort of way), it was indeed ludicrous since she was allegedly obeying traffic laws in her two-wheeled perambulations. From the Gothamist article:

As we noted yesterday, it is decidedly not illegal to wear a skirt while cycling. You won’t even find that “violation” under the NYPD’s questionable “cheat sheet” for cyclist rules, which is part of their massive cyclist crackdown.

Happily, a grassroots protest to this event emerged, which led to a cycling while skirted protest ride in New York on Thursday evening. Look at those delightful photos! How many strong, stylish, happy women (and one man) cycling in skirts! The first photo is of Jasmijn Rijcken, the Dutch cyclist who returned for the event, and who is also general manager of the VANMOOF bicycle company. As noted in New York Press’s post-ride post:

According to those involved with the Skirts on Bikes ride last night, over a hundred cyclists participated to show support for stylish (and potentially skimpy) riding. Jasmijn Rijcken, who was the Dutch cyclist allegedly stopped by a police officer in early May while riding her bike dressed in a skirt, traveled back to New York City to join the cause. “Usually you feel fragile on a bike, last night we felt powerful,” Rijcken said. “It’s what bicycling should be: positive, friendly and joyful.”

One caveat: even though it’s a hairstyle buzzkill, they should all be wearing helmets, any time they’re riding, no matter how short or slow the ride.

HT: Courtney Knapp (thanks, Court!)

Spring weekends in Chicago–athletics and music edition

Lynne Kiesling

One of the KP Spouse’s and my best friends has a great quote: “adventure is ordeal retold at a distance”. Today, on a gloriously sunny day, I think I’ve got enough distance from yesterday’s ordeal to think of it as an adventure! Actually, only the first part was an ordeal; the rest was delightful.

Sunday started at 5:15 AM when the alarm went off, and the KP Spouse, our friend Meg from LA, and I prepared for the Chicago Spring Half Marathon. When we opened the blinds and saw the damp pavement and the vigor of the treetops whipping around, we knew this one was going to be a doozy. The temperature was 46 degrees and due to fall during the day. The whitecaps and the layers of gray colors made Lake Michigan look like the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly for us, what creates whitecaps in Chicago is stiff winds out of the north barreling down the length of the lake — in this case, 20mph winds with frequent 40mph gusts. This was not good news for a race course run entirely on the lakefront path, out and back, with the first 6.5 miles heading south. The tailwind on the way out was pretty sweet, but I was still soaked through by mile 5, and the northbound return was the most brutal hour-plus of any of my sporty endeavors. Still, we (and a bunch of other crazy folks) finished, and I even managed a PR on the day. The real troopers on the day were the volunteers on the course and the spectators, voluntarily cheering their friends and family and the rest of us.

Recovery/transition involved homemade banana pancakes, a lovely bottle of prosecco, compression socks, and a Colin Firth-rich Pride and Prejudice marathon.

Then on to the next event! Elvis Costello, still the coolest guy in town even after 35 years of a rich musical career, brought his Impostors and a spinning wheel of songs to the Chicago Theater. With the help of some creative and enthusiastic wheel spinning and dancing from audience members, they charged through a variety of the Elvis Costello catalog. And we danced, and hopped, and sang. This is the third time I’ve seen these guys in the past three years, and they are a consistently creative and tight band of outstanding musicians. One example: the classic up-tempo Costello song “Pump It Up” played in 6/8 time instead of 4/4 — a sultry, jazzy version grounded in Pete’s (the drummer’s) outstanding triplets keeping the time. And some Smokey Robinson and Prince cover medleys for good measure.

Yep, life’s an adventure.

John asked for a cycling post …

Lynne Kiesling

… but this is an econ post too. John Whitehead was kind to refer to our November lunch conversation in which we discovered a shared interest in cycling (to go along with our shared interests in economics, environmental economics, and beer). There are some ways that even individual recreational cycling reflects core economic ideas, particularly about specialization and comparative advantage (don’t even get me started on the economics and strategy of professional cycling …).

Take the duration of activity, for example. From exercise physiology we learn that we have differentiated muscle fibers, categorized roughly into fast twitch and slow twitch. Fast twitch are the muscle fibers that engage for quick bursts, working with the anaerobic energy system in sprints and other short but intense activities. Slow twitch are the muscle fibers that enable you to work aerobically, over long distances and durations. Different people possess these types of muscle fibers in different proportions (think of that as your initial endowment), and you can develop more of one or the other at the margin, but given your initial endowment, you are going to have a predisposition toward one or the other. Just as in talking about trade and exchange, this predisposition has a lot to do with comparative advantage.

More after the cut … Continue reading

The economics of bike lanes

Lynne Kiesling

As a celebration of impending spring, I give you economics journalist Olaf Storbeck’s sound analysis of the economics of bike lanes. His prompt for writing was a rant from John Cassidy in the New Yorker about the tradeoff between bike lanes and “free” street parking spaces. Storbeck’s analysis is thorough, and goes beyond the oft-forgotten “street parking isn’t free” (citing the oft-forgotten work of Donald Shoup on that subject) to mention the network effects of having a more interconnected set of bike lanes (with a shout out to my very interesting colleague Mathias Doepke in the process!)

Storbeck accurately, I think, pinpoints the fundamental question: “Should the government promote cycling?” Here we probably disagree somewhat; he argues that it should, based on the health and environmental effects of substituting into cycling and out of driving. I am more concerned about the top-down imposition of a particular value judgment and the paternalism inherent in such a position than he is.

I don’t take the same normative position as he does, but I do favor making bike lanes explicit on high-traffic streets from a more Coasean perspective — bike lanes define property rights more clearly, and contribute to more coordinated and more peaceful shared use of a common-pool resource. For me that’s the primary economic reason to take the normative position in favor of bike lanes. More clearly defining property rights will reduce the costs associated with the decision to bicycle, so at the margin it will lead to the desirable outcomes he wants.

I am really looking forward to getting outside on my bike. For Christmas this year the KP Spouse got me a SRAM Force groupset of components for my bike (don’t worry about what that is if you aren’t a cyclist, it’s spiffy gears and shifters etc.), and I’ll be taking them on their maiden voyage next week in North Carolina, where we’ll be attending a “spring training” bike camp to work on mountains and hill climbing.

Happy cycling!

Speed blogging

Michael Giberson

Speed blogging = copying a Zetland trope so I can clear these items off my “to blog” list:

Robert Rapier on the Renewable Fuels Association‘s wild efforts to hold onto all possible subsidy and policy advantages that it can grab.  Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal reports the emergence of a left-right coalition in Congress against extension of ethanol subsidies. (via Environmental Economics and Market Power)

Also don’t miss Rapier’s “Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Begins to Set In.”

Matthew Lewis explains Steven Levitt’s premium pricing puzzle.  A while back Levitt observed gasoline pricing data that showed the premium paid for premium (high octane) fuel became larger compared to the price of regular gasoline as the overall price of gasoline increased. Levitt was puzzled, his economics leading him to expect a fixed price difference. Lewis explains that the data Levitt observed (USA Today‘s “Weekend Gas Gauge”) was faulty. USA Today relies on AAA’s price data which accurately records regular gasoline prices and simply assumes a fixed percentage mark-up to estimate mid-grade and premium gasoline prices.

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias points to an intriguing bit of experimental social science. Researchers manipulated the perceived status of leaders in a public good contributions game, players tended to mimic the contributions of high-status leaders but not low-status leaders. When punishment was an option in the experiments, low-status leaders punished more and were punished by other players more. (See “Cooperation and Status in Organizations” by Catherine Eckel, Enrique Fatas, and Rick Wilson in the Journal of Public Economic Theory).

Al Roth at Market Design, “College football teams are hard to rank” commenting on the New York Times, “Who’s No. 1?” I wonder, “Hard to rank compared to what?” Doesn’t some version of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem apply to BCS or any other system of ranking football teams? Maybe some other ranking system would work better, but my guess is that ranking ranking systems is also hard, so how are we going to pick a better ranking system?

I guess if I’m copying one of David Zetland’s tropes I ought to offer a HT in the general direction of Aguanomics. Here is his “Gasland – The Review.” It is an inflammatory film, and Zetland is fired up.