Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Jumping into conclusions in soccer tournaments

It is well-known that soccer is a very unpredictable sport. Narrow scores, a fluid game and a round ball conspire to make it fundamentally uncertain (with some structure). That’s why one should be careful before jumping into conclusions, or at least keep questioning them all the time.

For example, for some years now, the initial conclusion by Palacios-Huerta and Apesteguia that 60% of the time, a penalty shoot-out is won by the team kicking first, is now questioned with better evidence (it is probably closer to a non-significant 53%, and in the last World Cup most shoot-outs were won by the team kicking second).

Being a socialdemocrat from a non-capital city, two of my preferred hypotheses about soccer are that western European national teams are better than the Eastern teams basically because of socialdemocracy integrating immingrants (as suggested by the great journalist Simon Kuper), and that club teams from non-capital cities are better than teams from national capitals (as suggested by Kuper and Szymanski in Soccernomics, if I remember well). I love it when evidence is consistent with these hypotheses. But then the Czech Republic defeated the Netherlands, Ukraine defeated Sweden (a socialdemocratic paradigm country) and Chelsea defeated Manchester City.

One option that would make me happy is to credit socialdemocracy for the victories of western European teams and blame managers and referees for the defeats, but it is probably fairer to provisionally conclude that socialdemocracy needs constant renewal… also in sport.

The next game may always qualify a previously clear story. The non-scoring Spain of the first two games of the Eurocup is now the top scoring team, after 10 goals in the last two games. Now everybody in Spain believes of course that Spain will win the tournament. I would urge patience and openness to the idea of defeat.

Yesterday, Gary Lineker put to bed his “Germany always win” phrase. As Branko Milanovic argued in a nice paper some years ago, inequality has increased among club teams, but decreased among national teams. That is probably because any country in the world now sends the best players to the top club teams in Europe, with the best facilties, medical doctors, colleagues… But there still seems to be a middle income trap, because no African or Asian team has ever won the World Cup or reached the final.

The home field advantage (HFA), which seemed immortal, has declined over time, to the extent that UEFA has finally eliminated the double value of the goals scored away in too-leg rounds. VAR and the pandemic have almost eliminated the contribution of the referees to the HFA, but there is still some residual HFA, which means that factors other than referees (which were supposed to have vanished according to the book “Scorecasting”) still remain.

I would love Luis Enrique’s Spain winning the Eurocup. It would confirm some of the hypotheses I love: a manager that does not like superstars, a national team without members of the big capital club team, offensive play and ball possession… However, if the Spanish national team reaches the final and wins, it will basically be by luck.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Brexit referendum, five years later

Amartya Sen published an expanded re-edition of his classic book on "Collective Choice and Social Welfare" in 2017, just after the Brexit referendum, which took place on June 23rd., 2016. The new edition contains the old 1970 text and subsequent developments of the field, to which Sen ha enormously contributed. Some of the concerns of the author (and the sub-discipline of social choice, in-between Economics and Political Science) were confirmed by the referendum. It is well-known that the will of the people is ill defined, that there are many democratic ways of reaching collective decisions, that none of them is perfect, and that the power of agenda setting is huge. All this was confirmed by the bad experience of the Brexit referendum, which was surrounded by division, lies, xenophobia and confusion. In the new 2017 Preface of the book, Sen writes:

"Open discussion with extensive public reach and scrutiny can have a powerfully positive role in making elections and votes better informed (...). For example, the political disarray related to the British vote on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union is at least partly due to to the factual distortions that were widely disseminated before the vote. Indeed, as I write this Preface in the summer following the vote, the Leave campaign seems to be presenting clarifications -often involving corrections- of what the campaigners had said before the vote. Just as freedom of speech is important for democracy, so are well-organized and reliable facilities to fact-check." Five years later, with more information, polls suggest that most voters would prefer to remain.

Today we know that the 2016 referendum reached a very narrow democratic decision by a bad method (a divisive binary referendum without a previous agreement to be ratified)  that has disrupted a previous democratic decision reached by a much better method, namely the Good Friday Agreement of 1997, achieved by all the relevant parties and ratified in a referendum both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

The Leave vote won the Brexit referendum in 2016 by 51.9% of the vote after a campaing based on lies. The rules did not require any threshold other than more than 50% to win. Significant sub-jurisdictions such as London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain, as did the youth and the urban voters. As a consequence, Britain left the EU (although, in spite of a "hard Brexit", it remains unavoidably linked to it), but Britain may be disintegrating itself. And five years after the referendum, many things remain to be clarified, even after the UK reached (after a long negotiation) an official deal with the EU on supposedly what it meant to leave after January 1st, 2021.

Before organizing the next binary referendum not based on an agreement to be ratified on a crucial institutional matter that may have consequences for many generations, anyone should perhaps read "Democracy for Realists," the book by political scientists Achen and Bartels that warns about the risks for democracy of group identity and irrational voting behavior. Democracies should be protected from some of its interested enthusiasts.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Is it possible to fix identity conflicts?

At the end of the great book edited by Piketty, Martínez-Toledano and Gethin on political cleavages (so far, only in French), they argue that identity conflicts are more difficult to solve than conflicts based on social classes and income and wealth inequalities. Democracy and deliberation do not usually find a solution to identity conflicts, so that the only way to put an end to them, they argue, is by one group defeating or eliminating the other. Based on this, they express a cautious preference for class conflicts, because they believe these are easer to solve through deliberation and democracy.

I also prefer class conflicts rather than identity conflicts, but I do not think that identity conflicts are impossible to solve, or at least I think that they can be guided to an evoltuion that makes tolerance and coexistence possible. Certainly, it s not easy. But after all, big metropolis throughout the world in democratic countries show that coexistence between different religious communities is possible. Not without tensions, but communities with different religions and ethnicities share cities like Paris, New York City, London or Berlin.

I prefer class conflicts because I think it is more ethical to focus on this, and try to see that ethnicities and religions are superficial markers that are made important for social reasons. The markers we focus on are endogenous, and the result of social dynamics and interactions.

In other words, identity is social, and we should not apply to it a different set of values from those that we apply to class conflicts.

If one looks at the Middle East instead of the big metropolis of the world, it is tempting to conclude that identity conflicts do not have a solution. But perhaps people have just been wrong on how to solve the conflict between communities in Israel/Palestine. Two great intellectuals, one Jewish and one Palestinian, Tony Judt and Edward Said, expressed a similar opinion in their last years, an opinion that has recently been echoed by some participants in the debate, such as Peter Beinart. It is wrong, Judt and Said claimed, to try to promise freedom in a small piece of land by allocating one state to each ethnicity and religion. The only solution is to be able to share the land, as it is done in big cities, and focus on respecting individual rights, and this respect should be guaranteed constitutionally and if necessary by international protection, as de facto and de iure happens in big cities. That is, individual rights should not depend on which ethnicity has the majority.

Nothern Ireland's conflict was actually fixed by forging institutions that went beyond the logic of national sovereignty, with the Good Friday Agreement, only to be put in crisis recently because of an application of the logic of the nation-state (Brexit).

If the conflict of Northern Ireland found a solution through dialogue and consensus building, surely much lesser problems, such as the split of Catalonia due to the pro-independence drive, can be solved through similar means. Identity conflicts will not go away, but we can manage them so that we can focus on the much bigger social problems of our time.