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Sunday, May 10, 2009

What I've been reading

1. The Bunch Attack: Using Compressed Formations in the Passing Game - by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Sometimes you have to go back and re-read the bible. The title now is a bit anachronistic -- the idea of the "bunch" revolutionizing the passing game is so 1997 -- but this book is still probably the best exegesis on the passing game out there. Of course, also check out Coverdale and Robinson's three volume series on the quick, or three-step passing game.

2. FDR: The First Hundred Days - by Anthony Badger. Can be read in about a day, and I learned things I previously did not know.

3. Notes from Underground- by Dostevsky. I enjoyed this translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Word is that this is one of Mike Leach's favorite books. No comment on any possible parallelism between Leach and Notes's famous opening line, "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man."

4. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness - by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Thaler is the big behavioral economics guru (famous in football circles for doing a behavioral economic analysis on the NFL draft with Cade Massey of Duke*), and Sunstein is a law professor who specializes in administrative and regulatory law (though his writing is prolific and his interests varied). They were colleagues at the U of Chicago, but Sunstein moved to Harvard and now has been nominated to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Policy, which primarily reviews proposed regulations for efficacy and consistency with government wide policies. Sunstein is also a potential future Supreme Court nominee, though it is unlikely he would be tapped to replace Justice Souter.

About the book: I liked it, but I'm not raving. It takes a couple of behavioral economics' biggest or best ideas and stretches it out over the course of the book. I think it would make a great article (indeed, it has made several) but the book is uneven. The early chapters read like a high school level or at best freshman undergraduate level explanation of ideas like anchoring, availability, and representativeness -- all important heuristics to understand, but stretched out too long. But then, the book switches course to specific applications, and its choices are the minutiae of some rather byzantine laws and regulations, from Medicare Reform to potential social security reform. These are not gripping chapters.

I leave aside the broader political questions hovering over the book in terms of judging it (and the book tries mightily to stay apolitical). I note that Thaler and Sunstein call their approach "libertarian-paternalism" -- the idea is that we want to maintain maximum choice but nevertheless design the architecture in a way that makes it easier for people to make the right choices, or even if they make no choice at all. The only vaguely political comment I do have is that Thaler and Sunstein spend a lot of time justifying the "paternalistic" aspect to would be libertarians who are skeptical of all government interference. And indeed, there is much criticism of the book from this faction. But, since the book's initial conception, the political winds have shifted somewhat, and I would have enjoyed a more thorough defense of the "libertarian" half of their approach. The authors are committed to free choice, yet they mostly assume that everyone is with them on the point. This is not to say they are not, but debate is always good -- where there's light there's usually also heat.

5. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction - by William Zinsser. Blogging is great, but it's probably time I figured out what professionals, who have spent careers writing non-fiction, think and try to do.

* This deserves its own post, but economist Kevin Hassett has developed NFL draft rankings based on the Massey-Thaler paper. Who did the best in the 2009 NFL draft? I'll let Hassett and Thaler. Via the Nudge blog:

Hassett identifies four winners: New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions Lions, and New York Giants.

New England’s coach, Bill Belichick,…ditched his first-round pick altogether and loaded up on four second-rounders. In addition, he traded some of his later picks for other teams’ second-round picks next year. The big news is that the Giants maneuvered to get two second-round and two third-round picks, elevating their final scores.

The big losers were the Washington Redskins, the New York Jets, and the San Francisco 49ers.

The Redskins once again revealed their extreme economic ignorance, trading away their second-round and fourth-round picks…The Jets made a classic error, falling in love with University of Southern California quarterback Mark Sanchez and virtually guaranteeing they will have a large number of undrafted scrubs on their roster. Given the high salaries at the top of the draft, Sanchez will probably not generate much value above that demanded by his salary, even if he becomes a superstar.

Thaler loves the Patriots draft and also gives a positive review to the Cleveland Browns. After entering the draft with the 5th pick overall, the Browns traded down three times to take center Alex Mack with the 21st pick, plus defensive end Kenyon Coleman, quarterback Brett Ratliff, safety Abram Elam, a second round pick from the Jets, and sixth round picks from the Buccaneers and the Eagles. That’s a lot of chances to pick up some solid starting players. Football pundits didn’t think so highly of the Browns draft, but none of them are economists.


Spud Bellard said...

I'd highly recommend any of the Dostoevsky Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated. They've replaced earlier copies on my bookshelf of the Demons and the Idiot.

Odd that I'd find the opportunity to talk about Russian Lit here on Smart Football. Keep up the good work (and reading!), Chris.

Anonymous said...

Sunstein spoke at a conference I attended last spring, right after the book came out. I was really unimpressed. I haven't read the book, but I would expect a law prof to be able to explain his concept. The concept in a nutshell, was something to the effect that people with freedom don't make good choices and education doesn't work, but nudges do. Best I could tell, a "nudge" was not education because it was entlightened and effective.

The distinctions he made in his examples (e.g. the Scandanavian pension example) made no sense at all. What he didn't say very well, but what I think he meant was that whatever authorities have determined to be the best choice should be the default option, but liberty interests meant that people should be able to change to something stupid, if they want.

I was struck by the total lack of respect he had for the common person and his faith that people in positions of authority were motivated to do the right thing. I thought he was an over-educated fool.


Ted Seay said...

Chris: Re: the Badger book:

Anything that can unite James Buchanan and P.J. O'Rourke in praise is well worth reading...with an open mind.

...and I'm in total agreement with Stan on the underlying contempt which characterizes the whole "Nudge" philosophy.

It's an attempt at libertarianism for polite democratic socialists...