Blinded by belief

I’ve been sitting with the passing of Kobe Bryant for a few weeks now. I was a bit too young and removed to be aware of the rape allegations at the time. I wrote him off when I heard about it later.

I was never really a Bryant fan. My early memories were frustrated. I’d race home from school to find ESPN once again scheduled a Lakers beatdown of a terrible team. Rather than an actual game, between say the Pistons and Heat or Jazz. The Lakers, Bryant, were the only ones Australians wanted to watch, apparently.

Bryant had an incredible record. He was a champion, an MVP, and, until recently, third all time in NBA scoring. But I’d watch him throw up ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. Think about all the talent on the bench with half the opportunities. It felt like we were all giving him a bit much. Or, rather, he was taking it.

This feeling was really captured by Tara K. Menon’s reflection on Bryant in the Paris Review:

The details of the sexual assault case in 2003 make clear that Kobe’s self-obsession often came at others’ expense. In this case, a nineteen-year-old girl. The criminal case was dropped, but it seems almost certain he was guilty. He was definitely guilty of the aftermath: he hired lawyers to destroy a young woman’s reputation.

His apology, lauded by some as exemplary, was additional proof that he couldn’t see others fully. He was blinded by himself, just as he blinded so many of us for too long.

It’s a beautiful essay on the inability to let go of Bryant the hero despite what she knows of Bryant the person. He moulded her. She moulded herself after him. But note the repeated references to his self obsession.

No one held his hand and opened his eyes to another, more accurate vision of himself. He never saw himself clearly—not on his first day, not on his last.

Kobe’s impaired vision is fundamental to what made him one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. He thought he could do the impossible, and that belief made the impossible possible, again and again: playing through a dislocated finger , making both free throws after tearing his Achilles, forcing overtime with a buzzer beating 3 and then winning that game with a fadeaway three-pointer in double overtime, those eight-one points .

That belief is integral to success has been drilled into me. “Sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can” goes a line from one of my grandpas favourite poems. NBA commentators will often remark on how necessary it is for shooters. That they took the next shot as if they forgot the last one.

But Menon, Bryant, shows it can go too far. It can blind you to others.

This summer I read a great book about the process of basketball: the art of a beautiful game by Chris Ballard. The Kobe chapters are, somewhat predictably, about his legendary competitiveness. Note how early it starts.

He keeps bugging Brian Shaw, then a star player in Europe, to play him one-on-one. Eventually Shaw relents, and the two play H-O-R-S-E. “To this day, Kobe claims he beat me,” says Shaw. “I’m like, right, an 11-year-old kid, but he’s serious.”

Now Kobe is 13 years old and an eighth-grader in the suburbs of Philadelphia, skinny as a paper clip. He is scrimmaging against varsity players at Lower Merion High in an informal practice. They are taken aback. “Here’s this kid, and he has no fear of us at all,” says Doug Young, then a sophomore on the team. “He’s throwing elbows, setting hard screens.”

Bryant, now 17, is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and much stronger than the teenage Bryant. The game is not even close. “It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him,” says Ridder, now the Warriors’ director of media relations. After 10 minutes, West stands up. “That’s it, I’ve seen enough,” he says. “He’s better than anyone we’ve got on the team right now. Let’s go.”

The examples are endless. Bryant’s belief in his own powers started young and apparently drove him to greatness. It was plain every time he took the court. You could see it in his eyes.

But Ballard also reveals the flip side. Of Bryant basically tormenting teammates through an obsession with winning. How, as Menon noted, his self-obsession often came at others’ expense.

Now it’s 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and a franchise player. Still, when guard Isaiah Rider is signed as a free agent by the Lakers, Bryant forces Rider to repeatedly play one-on-one after practice to house-break this newest potential alpha male. (Bryant wins, of course.) When Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, it’s the same. “He was the man, and he wanted us to know it,” says Richmond. “He was never mean or personal about it; it’s just how he was.”

Unfortunately, this is probably what I will take away from Bryant. He was a joy to watch compete. Not just gifted but amazingly driven to be the best. But there was also a nasty side to that. What drove him to greatness likely drove him too far.

He was blinded by belief.

As always my emphasis

The immense opportunity of climate change

Dealing with climate change has always felt like a slog. Like we need to take our medicine in order to fight off calamity. In some respects this is correct, especially for countries without access to a lot of low-emissions power.

But reading Superpower by Ross Garnaut makes me realise that there is a huge opportunity. Especially for countries with access to large quantities of wind, solar, hydro and tidal power.

…Australia’s resource base placed it well for the energy transition: it had a wide range of high-quality renewable energy resources and economically favourable opportunities for geosequestration of emissions from traditional coal and gas generation… Australia’s hydro-electric resources and potential for pumped hydro-electric storage (PHS) in the Snowy Mountains and Tasmania, and perhaps its proximity to the immense hydro-electricity resources on the island of New Guinea, would play big roles in balancing solar and wind….

There’s already a company raising funds to supply a fifth of Singapore’s energy via an undersea cable from a solar farm in Australia.

But Garnaut goes further, pointing out that the more other countries put a price on carbon, the greater advantage there is for a country with Australia’s capacity to generate low-emissions electricity.

A price on embedded carbon would make imports from polluting industries and countries more expensive.

Australia is the largest exporter in the world of mineral ores requiring energy-intensive processing for conversion into metals. Australia in the post-carbon world could become the locus of energy-intensive processing of minerals for use in countries with inferior renewable energy resource endowments. Second, there are opportunities for export of hydrogen produced by electrolysis from renewable energy, through liquefaction or through ammonia as a hydrogen carrier. The natural markets are the renewable-energy-resource-poor countries of Asia, notably Japan and Korea.

Tackling climate change could move Australia up the industrial stack. It could rejuvenate manufacturing, countering some of the advantages of automation, geography and low cost labour. It should even benefit regional areas, as manufacturing is located near power generation.

But, most importantly, this isn’t just an argument for investment in renewable energy. Countries like Australia have a clear incentive to encourage everyone to cap, price and reduce emissions, to invest in moonshot technologies.

The more action on climate change the more competitive we become.

Don’t be trapped by training

As I slowly wrap–up The creativity code by Marcus Du Sautoy, this paragraph makes me consider how our training and experience shape, and in some sense even limit, our world:

Various attempts at learning jazz have taught me that there is a puzzle element to a good improvisation. Generally a jazz standard has a set of chords that change over the course of a piece. The task of the trumpeter is to trace a line that fits the chords as they change. But your choice also has to make sense from note to note, so playing jazz is really like tracing a line through a two-dimensional maze. The chords determine the permissible moves vertically, and what you’ve just played determines the moves horizontally. As jazz gets freer, the actual chord progressions become more fluid and you have to be sensitive to your pianist’s possible next move, which will again be determined by the chords played to date. A good improviser listens and knows where the pianist is likely to head next.

Of course this is by a mathematician and mathematics is a subject of the book. And this grab comes amid an exploration of music and algorithms. But the explicit mathematical digression in the midst of this musical romp sticks out.

I think it’s because I do this all the time (I’m pretty sure we all do). Just like Du Sautoy pulls music through his mathematical lens (and vice versa), we are constantly filtering and analogising. It shapes our world.

As a journalist I have a hard time ignoring the decisions made in stories. Wondering at other angles or how the medium itself (text, audio, video etc.) inherently limits choices.

In that sense my experience has me constantly stuck in the role of participant. Viewing through a lens of construction rather than strict consumption. I consume stories as one of a number of options, as a version rather than a totality.

Perhaps we all do this when consuming news. But I’ve made these exact decisions thousands of times. It’s hard not to envision the dirty carpet of the newsroom, the white walls above my desk, the mild panic as deadline approaches. To wonder how the availability of talent, the domain knowledge of the reporter, any number of other factors; pushed and pulled on what’s before me.

Similarly with economics. After university I have comparative advantage and opportunity cost tattooed on my brain. I’m constantly searching for impacts at the margins. I reason under a cloud of ceteris paribus.

Your training, what you do every day, equips you with easy heuristics. But it can slowly carve grooves in your thinking. You mustn’t let it control where you end up.

The trick is to be aware of it, and, hopefully, leverage it as Du Sautoy has. For greater understanding. Not to be sucked into thinking this is all there is.

As always my emphasis

Tab dump

It’s who writes the rules, dammit

If you have thought seriously about inequality or capitalism then the thesis of The code of capital by Katharina Pistor is not going to be too shocking. Still, it’s one of the best articulated explanations for wealth and inequality I’ve seen.

Fundamentally, capital is made from two ingredients: an asset, and the legal code. I use the term “asset” broadly to denote any object, claim, skill, or idea, regardless of its form. In their unadulterated appearance, these simple assets are just that: a piece of dirt, a building, a promise to receive payment at a future date, an idea for a new drug, or a string of digital code. With the right legal coding, any of these assets can be turned into capital and thereby increase its propensity to create wealth for its holder(s)

This gives you the crux of the argument. That how assets are turned into capital, and so generate wealth and confer certain rights, is contrived. This may seem like a simplistic and obvious point, but we often take for granted what protections are afforded to certain assets, why some stakeholders are held over others, or the myriad frameworks and legal fictions we use to interact with them.

Who decides this, and why, helps explain persistent and widening inequality in many societies.

The idea that people aren’t all equal before the law isn’t a novel concept. Nor is the notion that the already wealthy and powerful have greater ability to influence this. But Pistor makes a more subtle point.

She focuses on how private agents, through private law, have taken over this process. Lawyers, not legislators, conform assets to the law, and select and fashion the law to suit.

Law is the cloth from which capital is cut; it gives holders of capital assets the right to exclusive use and to the future returns on their assets; it allows capital to rule not by force, but by law. The cloth is woven of private law, of contracts, property rights, trust, corporate, and bankruptcy law, the modules of the code of capital. Capital owes its vibrancy and frequent transmutations (from land, to firms, to debt, to ideas, etc.) to the fact that private and not state actors code capital in law.

In that sense the issue is less about access to legislators and more about access to smart and creative lawyers. Especially interesting is how Pistor frames this as an implicit subsidy to those able to play the game.

Subsidies and other “entitlements” are typically viewed with great suspicion, because they are regarded as distortive of markets and lead to inefficiencies, even corruption. Yet, the legal protections capital enjoys are arguably the mother of all subsidies. Without the code’s modules and the possibility to fashion them to one’s liking, neither capital nor capitalism would exist.

What Pistor reveals is a deeper problem than is acknowledged by calls for higher taxes, different tax treatment, greater transfers, or pretty much anything else intended to decrease inequality. This is a structural issue, an invisible force behind much of our lives. It’s about who gets to set the rules behind closed doors.

Realizing the centrality and power of law for coding capital has important implications for understanding the political economy of capitalism. It shifts attention from class identity and class struggle to the question of who has access to and control over the legal code and its masters: the landed elites; the long-distance traders and merchant banks; the shareholders of corporations that own production facilities or simply hold assets behind a corporate veil; the banks who grant loans, issue credit cards, and student loans; and the non-bank financial intermediaries that issue complex financial assets, including asset-backed securities and derivatives…

…The law is a powerful tool for social ordering and, if used wisely, has the potential to serve a broad range of social objectives; yet… the law has been placed firmly in the service of capital.

As always my emphasis