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.


A Tale of Two Services

Surprisingly, this takes a while to build

There’s a lot of talk out there about boosts to defense budgets here, cuts to others there, and Armed Services of increased sizes everywhere. But at this point, it must be made clear that it really is just talk. No president ever gets the budget they want – only Congress can spend money. No reason to get nervous or, alternatively, cocky.

But be that as it may, let’s take such intentions as a given and see how they play out in the real world.

The Army is ready to go! They have taken their marching orders and are ready to increase end strength by 28,000 troops this year. It doesn’t exactly turn on a dime but, when you consider the scale of it – it nudges the total Active, Reserve and Guard strength to just over one million people – that’s pretty fast. The history of the Army is one of rapid swings up and down.

Then there’s the Navy. Growth cannot move fast. Speed is not a thing. A ship is an enormous capital investment. The Navy might be able to get some new aircraft in short order, or maybe some other smaller equipment, but a new ship or submarine – the backbone of the force – will take years. The industrial base for rapid expansion does not exist. You can order new ships, but where will you build them? Who will do the labor? Pretty much everyone still capable of doing the work already is. So there’s a bit more legwork to do before making this a reality. And the will to do so must remain intact for years on end.

Simply maintaining a navy, let alone expanding one, requires enormous sustained political support across the executive and legislative branches, and the people they represent. Sea power maven Bryan McGrath articulates the need for a naval narrative here. We would do well to listen.

In short, maritime trade and freedom of the seas is the very basis for global prosperity. Threats to that flow must be deterred (preferably) or eliminated (occasionally). But the forces to do so cannot simply be called into existence – if you need them, you’d better already have them. And if you don’t, someone else will fill the vacuum… probably someone unattractive.

So what will happen now? Despite the big numbers being thrown around not a whole lot, even if they become law. Readiness will be improved; the current force could be brought into slightly better shape. But actual growth? Not during this presidential term.


Deterrence is usually packaged in steel boxes

Remember the good old days when Europe was at peace and Russia was a bosom buddy? Neither do I, but back in 2013 we certainly were operating that way. Here’s a blast from the recent past:

The U.S. Army’s 69-year history of basing main battle tanks on German soil quietly ended last month when 22 Abrams tanks, a main feature of armored combat units throughout the Cold War, embarked for the U.S.

Turns out, maybe that was not well thought out. But don’t worry, they’re on it:

Determined to deter the rising Russian threat, the US Army is slashing the time it takes for a brigade to get ready for battle once it’s arrived in Europe, from over 40 days to under 10.

I won’t comment on that any further; it’s proposed here as something for you to think about.

But as long as we’re talking about tanks, enjoy some long-lost verse about mechanized warfare from the creator of Winnie the Pooh.

— End transmission —

Context and Counting

“Count THIS!” said Teddy Roosevelt

This blog has been illuminating pixels for more than a year now, but has never covered a simple topic that pops up in the news with some regularity – historic fleet counts. The reason, most likely, is that it is annoying. Such historic comparisons are both meaningless and fraught with symbolism; educational and mind-numbing. And in the hands of the uninformed or misinformed, they only make you dumber than when you started.

So let’s get started!

The most recent instance of journalists attempting to count ships was last week when POTUS (not SMOD, sadly) visited the shipyard in Newport News to announce his defense spending plan. Speaking to a naval crowd, he repeated a common statement that the Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1916, as measured by the number of hulls displacing water.

This is true, if one sticks strictly to raw numbers. The New York Times, of course, was quick to point out that today’s ships are rather more capable than a century ago.

The Navy swelled from 245 ships in 1916 to a peak of over 6,000 during World War II, downsizing between conflicts and bulking up during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. From the 1970s, the Navy gradually began to shrink to a total battle force of 275 ships as of September 2016.

But that fleet includes 10 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 63 destroyers, 11 amphibious assault ships and 68 submarines, 14 of which are armed with nuclear warheads.

I hate to call the NYT staff a bunch of simpletons (especially as a journalism major myself), but, well… context, people. Context. Of course capabilities have changed over the years.

But what was the mission of the fleets in those respective eras?

What ships were at the tip of the spear and which had other roles?

And do those ships have any technological advantage over their adversaries?

In order to get a cleaner comparison, let us first acknowledge that the nature of most of the fleet has changed. The monitors and steel gunboats of 1916 have no equivalents today, for example, and today’s aircraft carriers had no Edwardian ancestors. Fortunately, we still have major surface combatants – basically, your battleships and cruisers of 1916 and cruisers and destroyers of 2017. These are the backbone of the fleet, whose mission of sea control has remained more or less constant since the days of sail.

So what are the numbers?

In December of 1916, the U.S. Navy had on its books 36 battleships and 30 cruisers – a total of 66 major surface combatants. Worth noting: there were also 25 “auxiliaries,” which are basically the ships that carry fuel and supplies for the combatants (the guys celebrated here). Like sea control, this mission is also relatively constant over time.

So, how’s the score today? One hundred years later, in September of 2016, the U.S. Navy operated 22 cruisers and 63 destroyers, totaling 85 major surface combatants. Additionally, there were precisely 29 vessels providing fleet logistics.

What we see in this view is that over the century, the combatant force increased by just under a third (from 66 to 85) while the logistics force increased about 15 percent.

Now let’s break it down further – assume it takes four ships on the books to deploy one. Essentially, you have one ship training to deploy, one on deployment, one recently returned, and one going through overhaul.

Then take that number and divide it in two, since geography forces the U.S. to have a two-ocean navy.

Don’t worry, I did it for you here (decimals are rounded down to whole numbers).

Year Surface Combatants Deployed Deployed from Each Coast
1916 66 16 8
2016 85 21 10


What we see is that the American ability to send a floating piece of steel to a given crisis somewhere on Planet Earth is not that much different than a century ago. Granted, the 2016 number is slightly higher, but when one accounts for squadron operations (ships rarely sail independently) this really means we can only have a sea combat-capable presence in three or maybe four separate regions around the world. Given the intended 60/40 Pacific/Atlantic split, our abilities in the Pacific might be a little better, but in the Atlantic it’s actually worse.

Yes, we have carriers too, but only one is typically deployed per coast at a time (we recently had a grand total of zero), so they don’t change the end result that much.

If we thought that degree of presence was enough in 1916, when we still played second- or third-fiddle to the British – well, maybe with the increased responsibilities of the 21st Century, ratcheting it up might be a tad helpful.

Technology affects what a ship can do when it arrives somewhere, but as for being present there at all, a century of technical innovations can’t change basic facts of geography, fuel consumption curves, or the strategic value of the simple presence of a combat force. The toys are just details – but they are dazzling, and too often cause us (and naive reporters) to lose sight of why they exist.

And, about the toys – the enemy has those, too.

So, probably best not to rely on that.