This year, I tried (and failed) to give up on spectator sports. The opportunity cost of watching baseball and football is just too high, I thought. It worked until about September or October. Over the summer, I checked occasionally to see how the St. Louis Cardinals were doing–I grew up rooting for them, and I went to grad school in St. Louis from 2001-2006–and I thought it was fairly clear that I wasn’t missing anything. Then the Cardinals went on a historic tear that culminated in a World Series victory.
As an Alabama graduate, I knew college football season would be the big test. I watched a few minutes of the Alabama-Penn State game, but I finally broke down and submitted when Alabama played Arkansas. I’m at peace with it.
It’s a good time to be both a social scientist and a fan as big-time college football has descended into its annual madness with respect to determining a champion. We’re on the cusp of a handful of strange scenarios. If LSU beats Arkansas in a few hours, LSU will go to the SEC championship game against Georgia while Alabama will only need to beat Auburn tomorrow to be all but assured of a spot in the national championship game. The road to the championship would actually be easier for Alabama as a division runner-up than it would be for Alabama as a division champion. Commentators are saying LSU could probably still make it to the national championship game even if they lose to Georgia in the SEC championship game. An Arkansas victory over LSU creates an interesting (and chaotic) cycle: 11-1 Alabama will have beaten 11-1 Arkansas, who will have beaten 11-1 LSU, who will have beaten 11-1 Alabama… As at least one commentator has pointed out, SEC officials have interesting and perverse incentives over the next few weeks: if LSU beats Arkansas and then loses a close game to Georgia for the SEC Championship, the probability of an Alabama-LSU rematch for the title is still very, very high. This would also get a third SEC team (Georgia) into a big-money BCS bowl.
And just as Thanksgiving meals produce food comas, the chaos surrounding the top of the rankings in college football has produced calls to “fix” the BCS. The interesting problem, though, is that there isn’t a way to “fix” the BCS. One of the central insights in social choice theory is that, to quote Peter Boettke, “there’s no stable social welfare function.” The BCS can be tinkered with until the end of time, but there will always be some flaw in the mechanism. Even tournaments feature a lot of randomness: as much as we all enjoy bracket-busting upsets in the NCAA basketball tournament and great stories about this or that baseball team surging in the postseason, tournaments aren’t foolproof. Are they better? Maybe they are, and I’ve always been sympathetic to calls for a tournament in big-time college football. As much as we might want to think otherwise, the BCS can’t be “fixed” because there’s no One Right Way to do it (though adding Matt Ryan’s Gus Rankings to the mix might be a good idea; here’s an old article in which I discuss similar themes).
Like just about everything, I see the annual controversy about the BCS as an object lesson in the importance of markets as mechanisms for social decision-making. In a world where people have heterogeneous tastes, preferences, goals, ideas, beliefs, and so on, there’s no One Right Way to do things. This is implicit in the institutions of a free market society based on voluntary trade. To borrow from Steven Horwitz and David Friedman, the “anarchy of production” is a feature of the free market, not a bug. Order emerges from the voluntary interactions of the many buyers and sellers who make up the market. The annual BCS controversy is also instructive because it illustrates another important point. We have enormous trouble figuring out who the best teams in college football are. Answering truly important questions through non-market mechanisms is more difficult by orders of magnitude; indeed, as Mises showed in his classic article “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” it’s impossible in the absence of private ownership of the means of production.