Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Nanny State, or Who's Got Your Back, Jack?

Conservatives love to rail against the "Nanny State" - the kind of government that seeks to protect you from buying poisoned food, getting typhoid from infected servers, or provide you with an old age pension. Students of human nature, or at least YHC, think that's a really bad idea. Humans are designed for a society in which we have each other's backs. Family, clan, and tribe provide that function in simpler societies. If you want to live in a more complex society, something is needed to take their place.

The nanny family, clan, or tribe can be very intrusive. It tells you how to dress, how to talk, how to behave, and circumscribes you with a whole list of behavioral imperatives. In return for that, it has your back, and helps you when you are in need (usually), defends you against enemies, revenges your murder, and probably even helps you find a mate.

That's the kind of life our genes designed us for, and a modern state which can't manage to incorporate some of these kinds of supports is not going to be a good place for people to live.

The usual fate of professional athletes motivated my latest musing on this topic. No group of children, except possibly the children of the super rich, is so catered to in their youth. Your mother might be a junkie and your father a cipher, but if you start showing the talent that will ultimately make you a professional athlete there will be coaches and others eager to make you a center of attention.

My freshman roommate in college was a promising tight end for the football team. No sooner had he decided to quit football to concentrate on engineering than an assistant coach showed up in our room to tell him that they could get him the answers to those darn exams. My roommate was smart enough to tell him to get lost, but nowadays wouldn't even of had the confusing fact of being in a dorm with actual students - he would be sequested with the other athletes in a special dorm.

A tiny fraction of these athletic stars make it to the pros and make big bucks, often many tens of millions. Most blow it almost immediately. See, e.g., the stories collected by Max Linsky in The Woe Ater the Show. One excerpt:

Five years after they leave the league, 60 percent of NBA players have nothing left. In the NFL, it’s closer to 80 percent after just two years...

And this:

Basketball’s iconoclast is now a broke recluse. “For the past three years, as Iverson chased an NBA comeback, his marriage fell apart and much of his fortune–he earned more than $150 million in salary alone during his career–dissolved. Now, those who once ignored past signals have recognized that basketball may have been the only thing holding Iverson’s life together. “‘He has hit rock bottom, and he just hasn’t accepted it yet,’ says former Philadelphia teammate Roshown McLeod.

So what should a nanny state do? I forget who suggested the following, but I like it. The basic idea is that young professional should be required to put a big chunk of his salary in a long term pension plan, perhaps all but say $300,000 per year. That way, even the superstars would have trouble enticing the less wealthy into ridiculous spending sprees. Of course the shoe contracts and other extras would still make some a lot richer than others, but at least everybody would understand where the money came from.