The veil of opulence

At some point in the past decade, the explosion of fantasy leagues and the increasingly hostile and combative tone of sports talk has pushed the discussion toward something ugly, irrelevant, and ultimately boring. "Joey Votto sucks/rules" (a fun argument based in observation and statistics) has become "Joey Votto is/isn't worth $251.5 million" (an uninformed argument about money). The core structure of sabermetric analysis — which was always based on how a team should act if they wanted to win more games, not on how a billionaire should spend his billions — got co-opted into an incomprehensible language of contracts, dollar amounts, and hastily Googled advanced statistics. The veil of opulence seems to be at the core of this shift from entertainment to imaginary business. The accounting practices of corporate leaders should not be at the center of any discussion about baseball, basketball, football, or hockey. And yet we cannot have a conversation about whether Prince Fielder is a better player than Joey Votto without heavily factoring in how much money they make. This sort of opulent reasoning, of course, only helps the owner when he makes decisions that run counter to the best interests of his customers.

That's Jay Caspian Kang writing in Grantland (Kang being one of my favorite writers on the rich Grantland roster). I was thinking the same thing recently when talking with some fellow Cubs fans about the Cubs payroll. Why should I care what the Ricketts family has to spend on the Cubs to field a winning team? I just want the Cubs to win a World Series in my lifetime. It's not my money, really. Even when the Tribune company were the owners, I didn't care when stories about their financial distress came public.

The only reason I've cared in the past when the Cubs overspent is that I believed they wouldn't continue to spend their way out of those problems in the future. Then it distressed me that they didn't spend wisely because they would end up in quandaries like the one they're in with Alfonso Soriano, unable to move his big contract and unwilling to just write it off. I'd be fine with the Cubs trading Soriano and eating most of the remainder of his contract, but their desire to run the Cubs as a large profit center impedes the speed of their rebuilding. While I'm elated that the Cubs have hired Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and an ownership that has a history of spending smarter, I'd be just as happy if the Cubs spent like the Yankees and fielded a superteam.

By the way, "veil of opulence" is a gem of a saying that Kang borrows from this op-ed by Benjamin Hale. It's well worth reading.

Where the veil of ignorance offers a test for fairness from an impersonal, universal point of view — “What system would I want if I had no idea who I was going to be, or what talents and resources I was going to have?” — the veil of opulence offers a test for fairness from the first-person, partial point of view: “What system would I want if I were so-and-so?” These two doctrines of fairness — the universal view and the first-person view — are both compelling in their own way, but only one of them offers moral clarity impartial enough to guide our policy decisions.

Hale goes on to explain why the veil of opulence fails to offer that moral clarity:

But the veil of opulence operates only under the guise of fairness. It is rather a distortion of fairness, by virtue of the partiality that it smuggles in. It asks not whether a policy is fair given the huge range of advantages or hardships the universe might throw at a person but rather whether it is fair that a very fortunate person should shoulder the burdens of others. That is, the veil of opulence insists that people imagine that resources and opportunities and talents are freely available to all, that such goods are widely abundant, that there is no element of randomness or chance that may negatively impact those who struggle to succeed but sadly fail through no fault of their own. It blankets off the obstacles that impede the road to success. It turns a blind eye to the adversity that some people, let’s face it, are born into. By insisting that we consider public policy from the perspective of the most-advantaged, the veil of opulence obscures the vagaries of brute luck.

It's a useful concept, a corrective to my tendency towards excessive empathy in an effort to be overly fair. As Hale notes, the irony is that that impulse can lead to the exact opposite result.

It seems, however, that the concept of tight correlation between individual effort and success is core to the American dream, and a huge motivational force. Spend enough time in the tech sector here in the Bay Area, and you couldn't be blamed in arguing that results in the startup or entrepreneurial space space are probabilistic. Still, continued innovation in tech may continue to depend on individuals believing that control over their entrepreneurial success is largely deterministic.