The Charity Myth

Politicians who advocate dismantling the welfare state frequently state that the poor and destitute will not be left out in the cold. They claim that a private and religious safety net will replace the public one that exists in many industrialized countries.

To be sure, private charity is capable of helping many people and serves an important role in the non-governmental safety net.

The problem is that private charity has never, by itself, been sufficient to prevent suffering, homelessness, starvation, and poverty. Not even religious-based organizations have been able to do this. There are arguments in favor of destroying the welfare state (ones with which I do not agree), but they cannot rest on the premise that services from non-profits and religious groups will make up for the loss of state assistance.

Some – perhaps even many — people will be totally comfortable with this. “If people can’t make ends meet, if they starve, that is their problem.” Most people, though, would probably disagree, at least when it comes to children.

However, there is no evidence to indicate that a significant portion of people will provide enough voluntary largesse to support the impoverished and alleviate their suffering. There are no historical examples where wholly voluntary charity has produced a support structure that protects people in vulnerable positions. Only when contributions to a welfare system are enforced by law through taxation or by a powerful set of customs do those funds amount to enough to help the vast majority of poor people.

As I have written before, what is troubling about statements like this is not the point in itself (that some politicians will sacrifice social services) but the attempt to confuse voters about the end result (that cutting government programs has real consequences for real people). These politicians are aware of the likely outcome of their actions, but want to disguise it by claiming that other, non-existent forces or organizations will intervene. Those forces will not intervene. Private charity is a valuable part of the safety net, but in the aggregate non-profits do not have the resources to even come close to providing the services lost if public sector support disappears.

If you cut social services, the magic hands of private charity will not be strong enough or broad enough to provide for the people who lose that vital public assistance. If you think that starvation and homelessness are an acceptable outcome of your public policy choice, then be honest about it.


Cricket’s Palace Coup Threatens the Game

The three wealthiest national cricket associations are attempting to take near-total control of the sport’s international governing body. By doing so, they may be able to maximize revenue in the short- and medium-term, but they will cause significant damage to cricket in the long run.

For non-cricket fans, a brief primer (cricket fans can skip the next two paragraphs): cricket originated in England and spread to many countries in the British Empire. The top countries in world cricket are (in alphabetical order) Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the nations of the West Indies, and Zimbabwe. Other countries where the sport is growing in popularity include Afghanistan, Kenya, and Ireland. As far as the game itself, Americans can think of it as a sort of weird baseball. For the rest of the world…there isn’t much else that is similar to cricket. It’s a bat and ball game where one team tries to score more runs than the other by hitting the ball very far.

The International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s governing body, is an oligarchy of the cricket boards that represent the ten nations in the first list above. These are the Full Members, and they have authority over the sport and its competitions. Below them are the 37 Associate Members, which do not have any significant say in the running of the game but can participate in a variety of regional and inter-continental competitions. The Associates include countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, Namibia, Scotland, and Fiji — a very diverse group of developed and developing countries. All of them have cricket competitions at some reasonable standard and a committed following for the game. The lowest rung on the ladder are the Affiliate nations, where some cricket is played according to the Laws of the Game, but the general standard of play is low and the sport has a very small following.

The most influential and financially successful cricket boards represent India, England, and Australia. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is by far the wealthiest national association due to the game’s massive following in that country and the attendant value of television rights for cricket. In the last few months the BCCI, Cricket Australia (CA), and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) drafted a plan, in secret, whereby they would take de jure control of the ICC — several steps beyond the BCCI’s current de facto supremacy. The national teams of India, England, and Australia would be guaranteed places in cricket’s top competitions, no matter their success or failure on the field of play. These three boards would also be granted a larger slice of the ICC’s revenues, more in line with the amount that each actually generates (India, for example, generates about 80% of the ICC’s revenue).

On its face, the financial side of this seems eminently fair. Why should the governing bodies of the top countries subsidize the other boards? Those poorer national associations simply need to make more money. Market success should be rewarded.

The problem for cricket is that sport doesn’t work that way. At least not entirely. Sports need some level of competitiveness between teams. Not necessarily perfect parity, but a balance of forces — the underdog has to have at least a chance to win, otherwise there is no point in playing or watching. And if people don’t watch, then there will eventually be a pocketbook hit for the top teams.

To achieve that balance, the poorer cricket boards need subsidies to be able to survive. The top Pakistani players get paid almost $6000 less than the lowest category of players who pull on an Indian shirt (about $34,000 vs. $40,000). Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the West Indies in particular have inferior facilities and fewer coaches to develop players, and this has an effect on the quality of play. Sports need a variety of possible results at the start of any contest to keep fans — their revenue source — interested. Taking money away from the poorer national associations and giving more to the wealthier ones will only serve to make results more predictable, eventually reducing the game’s audience.

This isn’t the only problem with the proposal from the Big Three. Not only does it attempt to destroy what competitive balance exists in the status quo, and to stack the deck against the poorer associations, it also destroys any chance of growing the game. By asserting the principle that the boards which make money should keep it, the ECB, CA, and BCCI are putting international cricket on a course of ultimate irrelevance and decline. Without subsidies and competitive national teams, the sport will probably decline in the countries where it is popular now, and the monotony of playing just each other in tightly-fought contests will eventually wear thin for fans of the Big Three.

Cricket’s best hope is to support the rising Associate Members with increased funding and the opportunity for more of them to play at top international tournaments like the Cricket World Cup. There will certainly be a phase of adjustment, perhaps a long one, during which the long-time powers will beat up on the newcomers. But the medium-term costs of this approach will allow the game to grow beyond its traditional power bases into new countries. See, for comparison, what FIFA has done for world football and the IRU has done for rugby union. Football is the world’s most popular sport because the money from the game has been spread around (to be sure, some times wastefully) and teams outside of Europe and South America have been given a chance on the world stage. At first, many of those teams embarrassed themselves. But eventually they have built up a strong football culture and they have become more competitive in international competitions. Rugby has also grown because of financial support and opportunities.

Cricket administrators have become convinced that their responsibility is to maximize revenue. It isn’t. It is to encourage more people to play and watch cricket, and to support players so that they can excel. The Big Three’s palace coup sacrifices both of those goals for financial gains now, and puts the future of the game at risk.

Why are sports fans so superstitious?

For several years I would choose what to wear on the day of a sporting event based on what I had worn in my team’s previous game and the result of that contest. I’ve turned games off in the hope that my team will play better, and turned games on while a small voice in my head told me that something bad would happen imminently. I’ve had a lucky scarf and a lucky sweatshirt for Cornell hockey, and a rotation of “lucky” Arsenal shirts.

Why do I bother? And why do so many other sports fans insist that their superstitions work? If you aren’t on the field of play, your actions can’t have any significant impact on the game. If you aren’t even in the stadium, you can’t affect the outcome at all.

We do it, I’d suggest, for two reasons. The first is that we easily confuse correlation and causation. If I put on a blue shirt for the first time in a few weeks and pick up a $100 bill on the street, I may think that the coincidence of sartorial choice in some way caused the good fortune to find someone’s lost money. If I wear a red and white striped scarf for three Arsenal matchdays in a row and Arsenal wins all of those games, I’ll go through the same pseudo-logical process.

Obviously, these events are not related, but if they coincide a few times it may feel like they are — and that belief is the essence of superstition.

The second reason is that sports fans care far too much about their (our) teams. We want superstition to be real because we want to have some control over a series of events outside our control. We want to be able to make the winning touchdown catch, set up a goal with a perfectly placed through ball, or save a game with a spectacular glove save. But we can’t. Our relative lack of sporting ability means that we are in the stands or on the couch. At the same time, we care deeply about the flow and result of the game, and we wish that we could do something about it, so we convince ourselves that we can. If I wear the right clothes, watch from the right side of the couch, and eat the right lunch, then my team will win. Even when we acknowledge the absurdity of the idea, we want it to be true, so we follow the routine.

Despite all logic and evidence to the contrary, fans will keep wearing The Right Socks, staking out The Right Chair, or eating The Right Meal. We do it because we have to believe, and believing makes it real.