Free Market? Sure, I’m Game.

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Finding a national consensus on matters like drug use, abortion and gun control is clearly a fool’s errand. Because we are, as a nation, so diverse and divided on matters of religious beliefs, ethical foundations and personal priorities, we will never – NEVER – come to a stable, lasting, nationwide accord on these issues.

Let’s start with drugs. Several states have decriminalized or even legalized marijuana use. Marijuana use was recently made legal in Washington and Colorado. Its use is not a criminal offense in more than a dozen other states. Others haven’t changed the legal status of marijuana and aren’t likely to.

The government of North Dakota recently passed anti-abortion laws that are considered to be the most restrictive of personal choice in the nation. New Jersey, along with states like Oregon and Nevada, has no active ban on the right of the mother to terminate pregnancy.  There are a number of workplaces (including hospitals) and schools affiliated with, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, which objects to contraception as sinful. Therefore, some of these church-affiliated institutions object to offering contraception as a part of employee or student health insurance. There are plenty of other employers and schools that have no issue whatsoever with offering contraception as a part of employee or student health coverage.

Guns control is an extremely emotional and divisive issue in the United States. This was demonstrated clearly last week when the Senate considered unsuccessfully a moderate proposal to nationally standardize required pre-sale background checks for firearms. Unrestricted private firearm ownership is considered nearly sacred by some of my fellow citizens but considered purely evil by others. In Alaska and Arizona, for example, gun ownership, and even carrying guns in public, is virtually unchecked. It is much more difficult to obtain a firearm in, say Connecticut or California, and nearly impossible to get permission to carry a firearm in public.

Now, we could all spend, like, forever trying to align on the ‘right’ approach to these policies but, in truth, we never will. Even if we rely on the courts to settle the ‘right’ approaches, they will not be settled permanently.

So, instead, let me propose something completely different – a solution driven entirely by free market principles. And it might look something like this.

The federal government tracks and posts accurate conditions reports on each state, listing up-to-date laws governing behavior on these ‘values’ issues. We, as consumers, decide where to live, go to school buy products, etc. based on those particular issues that matter to us.

If we want to smoke marijuana legally, we move to Washington or Colorado.

If we want to own the choices regarding our reproductive health, we don’t live in North Dakota or go to Notre Dame or St. Mary’s Hospital.

If we want to legally carry a firearm to the shopping mall, there’s always Arizona.

Now, the other side of market solutions is, states and employers and schools must be required to fully disclose their positions on these ‘values’ issues. Notre Dame University, for example, must have a statement in its marketing materials (alongside the intensely-focused cello player and the touchdown-scoring halfback) that says:

Dear Prospective Student:

This university is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which considers contraception a sin. Therefore, our student health service does not and will not offer contraceptive services.

With that information fully disclosed, high school seniors can intelligently choose colleges that best align with their personal beliefs and priorities. Anticipate needing or wanting contraceptive services as part of student health? Notre Dame isn’t for you; go somewhere else.

I can imagine signs at state borders as well:

Welcome to Arizona.

We allow pretty much anyone to buy and carry a gun here.

Enjoy your stay.

If you don’t like being around a lot of people with firearms, you can always vacation in Massachusetts.

This is, of course, not a realistic proposal, for two major reasons.

First, when push comes to shove, institutions (states, businesses, colleges) are loathe to disclose their positions openly if it costs them money, tourists, students, or employees. Notre Dame is unlikely to tell promising high school seniors with non-Catholic values they should just look elsewhere. North Dakota doesn’t want to lose new businesses because of its position on abortion. And Arizona would literally starve to death if tourists stopped going to the Grand Canyon or baseball’s Spring Training because of its gun laws.

And second, so-called ‘values’ conservatives say they like the unfettered free market and personal liberty and all that, but what they really want is to force their agenda down the throats of everyone else. They don’t want Colorado to become a stoner’s paradise, not because they themselves don’t want to live in such a place, but because, according to their own personal values, marijuana is evil and no American should be allowed to partake.

So, for now, we’ll live with this endlessly boring political and judicial wrestle over ‘values’ issues, when what we really should do is just start erecting the new state border signs:

Welcome to Washington.

Flame on!

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Big-Time College Sports: Time to Kill or Be Killed

iovirginOSU TEXAS FOOTBALL

It was a running joke my uncle the priest came to tell his parishioners every Super Bowl Sunday, especially during those years the hometown 49ers were so often represented in the NFL’s championship game. “I will work quickly and end early today,” he’d quip, “so you can get to the worship of America’s real national religion, football.”

And, as is the case for all good humor, his foundation wasn’t that far from the truth. Professional sport has become a well-loved and financially well-supported industry in this country. But even as big money can, God knows, create good entertainment, it also has the potential to twist and corrupt. If you’ve been paying attention to either news or sports recently, that can’t be any kind of surprise at all.

Potential corruption of pros by professional-scale money is one thing – we’d almost expect there to be some toxic spillover in for-profit entertainment enterprises – but the effects of big-time sports money on amateur sport is something else again. The money that’s come to American colleges and universities from running sports entertainment businesses has had seriously pernicious effects on what are still (nominally, at least) institutions of higher learning.

Here’s a table showing the top 20 sports revenue-producing institutions of higher learning, as of 2008. [Note how many of the top 20 are public and, therefore, publicly-funded institutions.] This is serious dough. Just to get some sense of this scale, the top performers on this list make about as much in revenue as tech-sector stand-outs like Pandora and LinkedIn.

Rank Team Total Revenue
1 Alabama

123,769,841

2 Texas

120,288,370

3 Ohio State

115,737,022

4 Florida

106,607,895

5 Tennessee

101,806,196

6 Michigan

99,027,105

7 Oklahoma State

98,874,092

8 Wisconsin

95,118,124

9 Texas A&M

92,476,146

10 Penn State

91,570,233

11 Auburn

89,311,824

12 Georgia

85,554,395

13 LSU

85,018,205

14 Notre Dame

83,352,439

15 Kansas

82,976,047

16 Iowa

81,515,865

17 Michigan

81,390,686

18 Oklahoma

77,098,008

19 Stanford

76,661,466

20 USC

76,409,919

[Source: ESPN, 2008]

This kind of money drives distorting behaviors. And to protect this revenue stream, significant measures are often taken. As just one example, the University of Maryland recently paid $2 million to buy out the contract of its football coach (then carrying a losing win-loss record), then hire a new coach for an annual salary of an additional $2 million. In outlining his rationale for making these moves, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, asserted his belief that, “intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment.” [Source: Forbes]

Baylor Bears vs. Kansas Jayhawks - January 16, 2012

In 2010, the 44 public universities with teams in the 5 most established athletic conferences (e.g., PAC-12, Big Ten) paid their head football coaches an average salary of over $2 million, well above the average salary of anyone else on campus [Source: Wall Street Journal], much less those who actually deliver on schools’ educational mission, the faculty.

Investment in big-time athletics might pay off for their host institutions financially, but data show the academic returns are mixed. At one time, student-athletes (the very name sounds anachronistic today) participated in revenue-producing and spirit-building athletics in exchange for the promise of a college degree. As big-time sports programs rake in the cash, and many athletes have come to focus almost exclusively on athletics and bail out of college early to join their sports’ professional ranks, that notion is being re-examined.

In fact, there is a large gap between the academic achievement levels of student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts at many schools. So, in reality, where is the benefit promised players? This calls into question whether schools running big-time sports programs are unfairly and handsomely benefitting from labor that is essentially free, and many have called for student-athletes to be paid. The schools with the largest difference in graduation rates between athletes (football players, in this case) and non-athletes, including, in the top position, to my shame, one of my beloved alma maters, are listed in the table, below.

Difference in Graduation Rates Between Football Players and All Students
Major Programs

 

Football Players

All Students

Difference

California

54%

90%

-36%

UCLA

59%

90%

-31%

USC

61%

87%

-26%

Virginia

68%

93%

-25%

Georgia Tech

55%

79%

-24%

Texas

57%

79%

-22%

Maryland

59%

81%

-22%

BYU

57%

78%

-21%

Texas A&M

59%

79%

-20%

Michigan

71%

89%

-18%

Clemson

62%

78%

-16%

Oklahoma

48%

63%

-15%

Florida St.

56%

71%

-15%

North Carolina St.

56%

71%

-15%

Wisconsin

66%

81%

-15%

Duke University economist (and a former teacher of mine) Charles Clotfelter, wrote a book about the conundrum this kind of imbalance presents to America’s colleges. Unsurprisingly, he finds deep unease. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, thinks sports an expensive side-show for schools: “Educational institutions have absolutely no business operating farm systems for the benefit of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.” James Duderstadt, the University of Michigan’s former president agrees: “Big-time college athletics has little to do with the nature or objectives of the contemporary university. Instead, it is a commercial venture, aimed primarily at providing public entertainment.”

Educational institutions running big-time sports programs bear great risks. They reap potentially huge revenues from their programs that reward activities not part of their core educational purpose. Priorities are skewed. While academic programs starve, state-of-the-art athletic facilities are built and coaches wallow in cash. Other than coaches, the main beneficiaries of these sports programs are professional football and basketball leagues, who harvest generation after generation of athletes trained and polished at mostly public expense. Furthermore, these schools benefit from the free labor of their students, who are not allowed to accept income and, increasingly, do not even benefit academically from their work.

A well-known and successful college basketball coach talked about his program’s essential independence from his host institution (not to mention his own obvious disdain for academic authority): “We’re not even really part of the school anymore, anyway…you think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do?” [Source: New York Times]

In the long run, this is an unsustainable situation. Colleges must get out of the big-time sports entertainment business if they are to keep alive any hope of fulfilling their educational missions. In the end, these enterprises are not worthy of the institutions these programs still (nominally) represent.

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