A fair and competitive utopia

Hey, remember the web in 1996?  Wasn’t trying to find stuff just such a fun and exciting adventure?  Clicking through content hierarchies on Yahoo! only to find that your idea of a keyword was a little bit off from theirs, and that cross-references and authority control* had yet to make it into their first-generation CGI programs.  And, oh boy, promoting stuff was an even bigger saga: submitting URLs to Altavista and Hotbot — yes, 1996, when Hotbot was The New Hotness and was gonna change the web forever — and wondering if anyone ever got around to listing your GeoCities page.  No worries, though: we wouldn’t really care about hit counts until Technorati launched six years later.

If that sounds fucking awful compared to the web we enjoy today, dear reader, you and I are on the same page.  But over at The League, Will has a contrary opinion:

Bear with me for a moment: A monumentally talented product from the old industrial heartland flees his hometown and a band of hardworking but less gifted teammates for a coastal metropolis, intent on mastering his chosen profession by joining up with other monumentally-talented guys. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s the perfect sports allegory for the flight of the creative class from flyover country to the coasts. LeBron James wants to live and play with other talented basketball players, much like young creative types want to live and work with other young creative types. The gulf between LeBron and everyone who isn’t an international superstar is undoubtedly more imposing than the social distance between a member of the “creative class” and a working stiff back home, but the larger parallels are irresistible.

This rather thinly-stretched analogy depends precariously upon the fact that the Heat lost this year’s NBA Championship, though even then it falls apart under closer scrutiny.  Professional sports teams are collections of anomalously talented — three or four standard deviations above the mean — individuals who make a career of living and playing with other anomalously talented individuals.  They’re far more concentrated in terms of specialized talent than are, say, coastal cities.

But let’s not resist the larger parallels.  We’re talking, after all, about superstars — not the talented and hard-working fourth-line wingers** who see ice time on the blue line when a defenceman gets injured, but the Wayne Gretzkys and Mark Messiers and Jari Kurris of dominant franchises from the fondly-remember’d past.  Will:

Let’s stipulate that “The Decision” was tasteless. Even if LeBron sent out a press release announcing his choice in the dead of night, we’d still be left with a vague sense of unease. Is it unambiguously right for someone that talented to leave the community who embraced him high-and-dry?

To be clear, I’m not in favor of limiting LeBron’s (or anyone else’s) freedom of movement or choice of employers. But I’d be lying if the culture and class-based sorting “The Decision” mirrored leaves me totally at ease. Plenty of sports leagues seek parity and a broader, less top-heavy talent base for the sake of competition. Wouldn’t a less uniform, more geographically diffuse creative class be desirable for many of the same reasons?

Let’s consider another pair of superstars: Larry Page and Sergei Brin.  Suppose that we lived in a world in which Will feels less vague unease, in which the creative class — in this case, PhD candidates at graduate schools — was more geographically diffuse in 1996, and Page and Brin attended different graduate schools.  What would the web be like without Google?  PageRank, the core feature of Google Search, was developed by this inequality-increasing dream-team pairing (and in fact most useful research is done by teams of people who are, almost tautologically, the best in the world at what they do).  In the creative sector as well as the 1980s-vintage Edmonton Oilers, dream teams produce far more value than the sum of their parts.  We might feel a bit less uneasy if West Bumfuck Technical College had as many superstar researchers as Stanford, or if Amazon.com and Pets.com had laboured under the same salary cap, but god damn we’d be missing out on a lot.

“Butbutbutcompetition!  Isn’t competition what makes markets work?  Isn’t that what you libertarians always say?”

Right.  Remember all that brilliant competition among search engines in 1996?  Competition is sort of like democracy: it’s not good in and of itself, but for what it enables.  In a reasonably free market, competition (with the aid of price signals, or more likely the other way ’round) lets “the market” figure out what consumers want and how much they’re willing to pay for it.  That is, competition enables network effects — the same network effects that encourage people with similar specializations to cluster geographically***.  “Competition”, “free markets”, “transparency”, even “representative democracy” — it’s all about aggregating information in a system that’s far too complex to manage in a top-down Hobbesian manner.

And market competition is only coincidentally related to the mildly-abstracted tribal warfare of pro sports competition.  Let’s pick another sport, just for fun: Formula One.  If competition in markets is expected to produce goods and services that’re closer to what consumers want-and-will-pay-for, in the same sense that Google competed with and defeated Hotbot and is currently mopping the floor with Bing, the constant flux of rules changes and adaptations in Formula One indicate that the way you get continued competition is by changing the baseline every time a clear winner starts to emerge.  It’s fun to watch, but you’d have to be pretty fucking dim to argue that the Red Bull RB7 (set to be nerfed by mid-season rules changes at Valencia this weekend and Silverstone in two and a half) is the sum total of the last sixty years of open-wheeled technological progress.  The list of innovations that have been banned for being too effective — which probably starts with unsprung downforce generators and includes things like the BT-46B, underbody tunnels in general, active suspension, and such mundane things as anti-lock brakes — beggars the imagination.

“Competition” is like “democracy” in another sense: it’s become so loaded a term that people tend to jargon-drop it into the middle of an argument, then look around and smirk because they think they’ve won.  Ain’t so, sugarplum.  Remember that utopia means no-place.


* Here at Blunt Object, we’re all about proper authority control, although we mean it in the same sense as pest control.

** Sorry, basketball fans: I’m switching to a sport I know well enough to analogize.

*** The way class-warfare types decry “class-based sorting” on the one hand while dividing the world up into “the creative class” and “working stiffs” in order to make their arguments work irritates me.

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