Tuesday , December 18 2018
Home / S. Sumner: Money Illusion / Too much of a good thing is boring

Too much of a good thing is boring

Summary:
America keeps getting richer, but it doesn’t seem to be making us happier. There is an epidemic of depression among the young, and suicide rates keep soaring to new highs. I’m going to argue that the main problem is the 3-point shot, which is a long shot in the game of basketball, for those who don’t follow sports. This is what’s making us unhappy. Obviously you’ll need to bear with me on this one. The three point shot occurs from behind a line about 22 feet from the basket, which was added to spice up the game back around 1980.  For years, the shot was rarely used.  When I was 30 years old, the two most exciting plays in basketball were the 3-point shot and the slam dunk.  The successful completion of these shots gave you the same feeling as three cherries at the slot machine

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America keeps getting richer, but it doesn’t seem to be making us happier. There is an epidemic of depression among the young, and suicide rates keep soaring to new highs. I’m going to argue that the main problem is the 3-point shot, which is a long shot in the game of basketball, for those who don’t follow sports. This is what’s making us unhappy. Obviously you’ll need to bear with me on this one.

The three point shot occurs from behind a line about 22 feet from the basket, which was added to spice up the game back around 1980.  For years, the shot was rarely used.  When I was 30 years old, the two most exciting plays in basketball were the 3-point shot and the slam dunk.  The successful completion of these shots gave you the same feeling as three cherries at the slot machine in Vegas.  But like an explanation point in literature, these two exciting shots lose much of their impact if overused.  And they are increasingly overused.

After the Golden State Warriors achieved great success by loading up on skilled three point shooters, other teams saw that this was the way to go.  The game was further “hacked” by the Houston Rockets, who realized that you could have one highly skilled player control the ball, and either drive to the basket or take a three pointer.  The other four would stand around at the three point line.  James Harden was too skilled to be guarded with one player, so he’d either score a layup at the basket, or, if defended with two players, he’d pass to an open teammate to shoot a three pointer.  Rinse and repeat.  I wouldn’t say that basketball became boring, but it’s much less interesting.

My team hired a new coach this year, who realized that the mediocre Milwaukee Bucks team from last year could become much better by adopting this approach, even though the Bucks are not particularly talented, except for one player.  I read that in November, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first team in NBA history to shoot over 60% from two point range for an entire month (excluding October, when few games are played.)  This is because Milwaukee figured that the optimal strategy was to either drive to the basket or shoot threes.  No “midrange” shots.  Their three point shooters are not particularly talented, but the odds favor that shot so strongly that the other team still must guard the 4 players at the three point line, and no one in the universe can guard Giannis close to the basket.  As a result, this season he’ll blow by the NBA record for slam dunks by a wide margin.  (For foreign readers, imagine they made the net in football (soccer) twice as large, and allowed players to use their hands–that’s the impact of the three point shot.)

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the greatest basketball coach of all time, and he’s horrified by what’s happened to his sport as a result of the three point shot:

I hate it, but I always have,” Popovich said of the shot. “I’ve hated the three for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time [and say] if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the three, they’ll really like the four. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

His championship team from 5 years ago featured the most aesthetically beautiful style of play ever seen in any American team sport, deploying a wide range of approaches.  Now it’s nonstop drive to the basket and score, or toss it out for a three pointer, over and over and over.

Do you see what we did?  The NBA noted that three pointers were lots of fun for fans, and thought that increasing them 10-fold would increase the fun 10-fold.  But it didn’t happen.  It’s as if baseball moved the fences in 100 feet to have lots more home runs.

Or—and this is where I finally get around to explaining why we are so unhappy—as if you made it so that all our desires were right at our fingertips.  No more unpleasant surprises in foreign travel; you’ll surf the internet and know exactly what to expect before you leave home!  You can also use the internet to do research on your date, before going out with him or her.  No messy surprises. No more need to browse through an old bookstore; it’s all on Amazon.  No need to trek out to the movie theatre and wait expectantly for the new Star Wars, it’s all on your big HDTV.  Remember when eating at a Thai or sushi restaurant was a thrill?  Remember when it stopped being a thrill?  Remember why it stopped being a thrill?

Last night I saw Anthony Bourdain’s final episode on CNN.  He revisited the Lower East Side of New York, where he used to buy drugs when he was young.  By modern standards, the Lower East Side circa 1980 was a nightmarishly awful place, and yet he and the people that he interviewed longed for the wild and messy world they had lost.  He seemed like someone who had lost interest in the modern world.

I’m not a Luddite who is opposed to change, indeed there are lots of rule changes I’d like to see in sports—starting with no instant replays by referees. (Remember, it’s a zero sum game.)  But we need to be careful that we don’t assume that just because X is pleasurable, 10X will be 10 times as pleasurable.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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