Room at the Top

The masses look out upon the few

It’s baseball season, and the world is righted again. Apparently there was a basketball championship over the weekend, or something. Whatever. Now that bats are hitting balls across diamonds, sports actually matter.

And in the presence of play at such an elite level, what better time to consider the matter of discord between the masses and the upper classes?

Seriously. Something is up, from the election of our current POTUS to the rise of Duterte in the Philippines, to Brexit and the real shot by the Le Pen faction in France’s upcoming election. At the same time, it is an absolutely amazing time to be alive, with dancing robots, reusable rockets, self-driving cars and the miracle of all miracles, duct tape.

I think it has something to do with the fact there are 30 Major League Baseball teams.

Bear with me.

Institutional Stasis

As the 1960s dawned, the majors included 18 clubs. As the country grew, so did interest in baseball, and in 1962 New York got a second team (the hapless Mets) while Houston brought the major leagues to a whole new region. Meanwhile, the 1960 Census counted just under 180 million Americans.

Over the next 36 years, four more rounds of MLB expansion followed, finally ending in 1998. By the time of the 2000 Census, there were 280 million Americans.

That is a 35 percent growth in population over 40 years (100 million people!), and a 40 percent growth in baseball teams – quite proportional. Assuming a 25-man regular season roster, that’s 450 Major Leaguers playing on any given day expanding to 750 over four decades, in line with the general rate of growth.

In the 17 years since the 2000 census, though, the U.S. population has continued to grow, now to more than 324 million (a 15 percent gain). But, on any given day between April and August (before the expanded September roster), there are still just 750 Major Leaguers.

There’s only so much room at the top.

This, of course, is true in many realms other than baseball. Take school. To use a prominent example, in 2000 Harvard admitted 2,035 applicants. In 2017, it admitted – wait for it – 2,056. The application pool was a “record” 39,494. Dude, of course it’s a record. The pool of interested students isn’t getting any smaller. Naturally, more will apply every year.

If schools like Harvard represent the narrow path into the elite (at least for those not born into it), simple math is making the path ever narrower. At least for now.

Of course, there is lots of educational growth out there in online programs and new campuses, and getting a quality education has, in large part, never been easier. But gaining access to the elite names with the elite alumni networks – and it’s all about the network – has been basically the same for decades. Established schools in college towns run out of real estate. They can only get so big.

Likewise, there can only be so many baseball games played before the snow starts to fall. There are natural limits to institutional expansion. But if the talent pool keeps growing, entering those institutions becomes progressively more difficult for an interested individual.

The Paradox

The institutions are harder to reach, but they will never burn brighter. Some of the greatest ball players ever are playing right now. You can go see them! Usain Bolt has run a 9.58 in the 100-meter. There are amazing scientists and engineers making amazing discoveries and potentially world-changing inventions. There’s some guy who wants to colonize Mars, and might actually do it. Life is pretty awesome!

The talent available in a world of seven billion people can make pretty much anything happen. Which goes to show that our number-one resource in any economy is not oil or minerals or fertilizer, but human ingenuity. Malthusian fears of global famine have not exactly panned out for this very reason.

But did you spot the paradox? The world of seven billion people provides a deep bench of smart people – but most of those smart people don’t get to be in the driver’s seat. Major research institutions or financial organizations are only so big, and expand so much. And building new ones is difficult. It takes time to build the credibility necessary to be considered elite, and the power of inertia means that which is already elite will probably crush upstart competition for the title. That means the number of seats remains limited.

It’s a buyer’s market for the global meritocracy, given the volume of qualified people. And, eventually, it really does work out for the world, as those smart people, given global resources, create solutions that end up benefitting everybody. But for those who don’t get to ride the escalator – you know, most people – it’s awfully disappointing. No matter what they do, there simply isn’t room. If you don’t know the right people or occupy the right place, it’s just not going to happen.

And so, despite the world being amazing – for a few thousand dollars, anyone can fly around the world with access to all of civilization’s accumulated knowledge in his pocket – there is also a clear disconnect between the top and everyone else. And so we are where we are.

The Military

This blog must address a military angle, of course. There is much hand-wringing over the fact that a majority of young adults are unfit for military service due to physical fitness, legal trouble or other reasons. However, I refer you back to the growing population above. It doesn’t make those problems – which are real – go away, but at the same time, the “deep bench” phenomenon does go a long way towards alleviating it.

The military may get bigger at the margins, as the Army is planning to this year. But this country is in no mood for any major expansion, and Congress certainly isn’t going to pay for it. So I think it is reasonable to expect a static force structure with slight variations over the years (barring a major draft-triggering war, of course). The pool gets bigger, but the demand signal will likely remain about the same.

This impacts the makeup of those who do join, though. Since they don’t have to take everybody (this isn’t “Starship Troopers”), recruiters can pick from among top applicants. It is already largely a middle-class force – the myth of poor enlistees used as cannon fodder has been false for the life of the all-volunteer force – but this will probably be further accentuated. Just like other high-performing but non-growing organizations, its quality will improve but an individual’s ability to access it will decline.

The Future

Demography may not be destiny, but it’s a pretty good leading indicator. We’ve been talking about the effects of population growth, but what goes up must come down. Global populations are probably peaking, and a great many countries’ birth rates are plummeting. The problems we discuss today about institutional growth not keeping up with the population will be reversed in the coming century – many venerable institutions will struggle to keep their doors open.

With fewer skilled workers, those willing to do the requisite studying will have (relatively) easy access to important jobs. Wages will rise, as money chases fewer candidates. Access to elite schools will be democratized, as they’ll need to lower admission standards in order to keep their dorms filled. The financial and political elites will remain, but getting to those points will be easier. An interesting precedent is Europe following the Black Death. With the loss of 40 percent of its population, life was not easy, but there were certain advantages for those who were left. The chances of finding work at good wages were much higher post-plague; something similar will happen – for a while – after our own demographic collapse. But because there will be fewer people, not as much work will actually get done. So an overall economic decline is likely, even as individuals’ experiences seem to indicate otherwise. (As an aside, it’s odd to compare a horrible plague with a simple lack of breeding. But it’s a similar demographic effect.)

The problem of fewer workers to produce the necessities of modern life may be partially alleviated by automation and artificial intelligence – but beware those who rely too much on them. Stuff breaks. The Machine Stops. Ultimately, someone will still have to do what needs doing.

End This Post!

What we’re seeing is a situation where institutions are doing their best to remain static and do what they’ve always done, but are out of step with population trends (both up and down). As a result, today’s average worker can buy amazing goods and have incredible experiences far exceeding what the Sun King himself could have imagined, and yet feel unmotivated and left out because of the intense competition to access the highest levels. Tomorrow’s average worker will have greater social mobility and will enjoy relatively high wages, but due to overall economic shrinkage, won’t actually be able to buy anything exciting (to them – we would marvel at what’s mundane in 2100).

If Western history is any indication, the only long-term solution is to colonize Mars.

And, probably, to build baseball stadiums there.

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2 thoughts on “Room at the Top

  1. Matt,

    This is simply amazing. What a thought provoking and relevant piece you have written! Get this to a national publication! It should be required reading by all!

    Dad

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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