Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Mel Blount Rule

When you change the rules, you change the game.

During the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise was the greatest, most dominant team in professional football. The Steelers from that era festoon the NFL Hall of Fame like old hippies at a Grateful Dead concert -- Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert -- all of them legends, and not just in their own time, but even still.

One of these players, and arguably the most dominant at his position, was Mel Blount, the most feared cornerback of all time. A tall, powerful man with excellent speed and amazing strength, he spent his career terrorizing the hapless wide receivers who dared to step into his part of the field. Anyone fielding a pass near Blount knew he was in for some serious pain. Blount was so dominant that he inspired a change in the rules of football. The NFL has always favored the passing game because of television ratings; the general public would rather watch a passing game than a running attack ("three yards and a cloud of dust" -- borrrinnngg!). Also, the NFL likes parity, and hates it when one team dominates for too long. It's bad for business, or so they believe.

As a result, the NFL handed down a rule change designed to blunt Blount. Henceforth, it would no longer be legal to jam a receiver further downfield than five yards from the line of scrimmage -- to be caught doing so would earn a pass-interference penalty. It was a simple rule change in a game with literally thousands of rules. How much difference would changing one little teeny tiny itty bitty rule make?

As things turned out, a world of difference. Before the rule change, running backs were every bit as important to an offense as quarterbacks. Backs like Jim Brown, Larry Czonka, O. J. Simpson, and Franco Harris had contributed as much or more to their teams' successes as their quarterbacks. (Quick: who played quarterback for Cleveland when Jim Brown was there?) But once this new rule was decreed, it opened up unforeseen opportunities in the passing game; thus, the running game was devalued while the quarterback and receivers appreciated in value. Having a quarterback who could throw well was no longer a mere option, but a necessity -- as was having receivers who could consistently get open. It also changed the type of players needed for the offensive line, whose primary job now became defending the quarterback rather than run-blocking. Most profoundly of all, the new rule favored coaches who knew how to win games through the air. Many coaches (including some of the greats, such as Tom Landry and Chuck Noll) could not adjust to the new rules, while a new school of coaches (Don Coryell, Bill Walsh) adapted and prospered.

All of that, brought about by one little, teeny, tiny, itty, bitty rule change. So it bears repeating: when you change the rules, you change the game.

Economics is also a game of rules. Here's one: in the United States, since Day One, it had always been understood that:

  • If someone makes good economic decisions, he prospers.
  • If someone makes bad economic decisions, he suffers.
It used to be that if a bank made bad loans, or a company made a product nobody wanted to buy, or an investor sunk his money into a losing enterprise, or a home buyer borrowed more than he could repay, such folks lost money and risked bankruptcy. If they did go bankrupt, their assets were seized by the sheriff and handed over to their creditors to salvage or sell off what they could.

In recent months, this rule has been changed. With the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailouts, the AIG bailout, the Wall Street bailouts, the bank bailouts, the proposed auto bailouts, and now the proposed home mortgage bailout, it is obvious that there are new rules in place:

  • If someone makes bad economic decisions, he prospers -- that is, he goes to Congress with a tin cup, on bended knee, and goes home with a few billion dollars in his pocket.
  • If someone makes good economic decisions, he suffers -- that is, he is forced to subsidize prodigal businessmen and imprudent mortgage defaulters.
This is a sea change, a transfiguration. It's a new game now. How different will the new game be? Who knows? But let's consider the possibilities anyway, starting with a look at what it was that we lost along with the old rules. Adam Smith, the philosophical father of capitalism, argued that the free market was the best way to organize man's economic activities in order to curb his selfish instincts -- to harness them, in fact, for the common good. Here, from The Wealth of Nations, is probably Smith's most famous passage:

Smith: "Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."
In short: he who would help himself must help others. This is the Golden Rule made economic flesh.

But such a rule cannot exist in a vacuum. Smith took for granted that he lived in a society where Christian ethics meant something, and where the institutions of private property and the rule of law had existed for hundreds of years. In other words, in 18th century British society, there were criminal options (such as stealing) that were denied to Smith's fellow Brits, and political options (such as seizure without due process) that were denied to Crown and Parliament. Capitalism requires a vast infrastructure of laws, customs, mores, and circumstance in order to perform its magic.

And Smith adds, with some disdain:

Smith: "Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."

This rule has already been under attack for quite some time. We had already created whole classes of "beggars" (by Smith's standard) for years that have been receiving federal subsidies in the form of government-provided welfare checks, food stamps, and housing subsidies at the low end -- and, at the high end, government workers, government contractors and corporate lobbyists. And it isn't "benevolence," exactly, that is doled out, but rather money that was taken forcibly from taxpayers and distributed by government brokers.

But until recently, it had always been more or less understood that any "benevolence" would be bestowed on the poor and disadvantaged. However, now we are being ordered to subsidize failed business enterprises as well -- most of whose CEOs are not in the soup line.

There are so many things wrong here, but let's focus on the most basic injustice: when AIG was making money, did they ever offer to share their profits with the taxpayers? No; but now that they have lost billions, the taxpayers are being conscripted to share their losses. Once you open the door to that sort of thing... Well, sorry, the door has already been opened. Let's try again: once this approach to doing business becomes institutionalized, then we have said fare-thee-well to capitalism, and we may as well re-write Smith's phrase to describe our new paradigm:

Revised version: "Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have whatever I choose, and only as much as I choose, to give you, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that the taxpayers are forced to surrender to us the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the patronage or even the benevolence of customers that we expect our businesses to profit, but from our ability to go over everyone's heads to the government and beg money, to our advantage, at the expense of the taxpayers. We address ourselves not to the public at large, who would surely scoff and sneer, but to the politicians -- and not towards their humanity for crying out loud, as they may not possess any of it, but to their self-love and greed for power, and never talk to them of right and wrong but only of their own political advantage."
And lest we forget the last part:
Revised version: "Nobody but a sucker chooses to depend chiefly upon serving honorably and with due diligence a customer's needs or desires."
As rule changes go, this particular one happens to be far more fundamental to the game of economics even than the Mel Blount Rule was to football. It's certainly a game-changer. In fact, the game has changed so much that you will no longer need to wonder, when ten different economists are trotted out to articulate ten different opinions, which one happens to be right. Now you will know none of them are right. They were all trained in economics as it used to be, the old game, according to the old rules. Those rules are dead. Nobody knows how things will work, or if they'll work, from here on out. Nobody's forecasts are worth a dime. Nobody's advice is worth soliciting. New rules, new game.

One thing hasn't changed, though, and that is human nature. Everyone will still try to look out for his own material well-being. We just don't know what form that will take. In 13th-century Mongolia, it meant killing your rivals and stealing their property and their wives and daughters. In the Soviet Union, it meant sucking up to Stalin. In Adam Smith's 19th-century England, it meant baking bread, cutting meat, or brewing beer for your customers. Let's hope --- indeed, let's pray that whatever form it takes will be a civilized one that will not cause too much misery.

Mel Blount, by the way, learned to play well even under the Mel Blount Rule, as he was a smart and experienced player with all the physical tools he needed to adapt. In time, we may learn to play our new game well enough to get by. At least, such will be my prayer.


Ken Jr. said...

Great post, Lee! You make it all so plain...frightful as that may be.

Anonymous said...

Well said

Lee said...

Thank you. I wrote that seven years ago. Still seems appropriate to me, at least.