Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Decision Avoidance

One of the biggest adjustments I thought I was going to go through when I took a new job was becoming a commuter. Commuting in consulting usually involves a couple of flights a week - but in my new role I'm working out in the burbs and one of my biggest worries, honestly, was driving every day (that's also a sign that I thought the job was a good fit).

And sure, since I started a few months ago, I've had to start driving ~50 minutes each way to and from the office, but I honestly haven't been that disturbed by it.

A big reason for that, is my Waze app.

That's the app that gives you live turn-by-turn directions, and it updates your routing dynamically as you drive. If a gas truck were to explode on the main highway I take home, the app would let me know and direct me around (but I'd probably ignore it to go check out the inferno).

But it's not that the directions save me that much time -- it's really about the fact that it takes a whole bunch of decisions off my brain-plate.

In the first week or so of my new job - I spent a ton of time trying to figure out the optimal path to work. That included what time I would leave in addition to which of the infinite ways I could route myself. All of those options kept me busy making a whole bunch of decisions. Should I get off the highway here? Should I try to cut over now? Is this lane really moving?

All of those were decisions I had to make - and they weren't important - took mental capacity.

But with Waze - I just tell it to take me to work, and it tells me the right way. No more decisions.

Trying to offload minor decisions is something I've always been trying to do more of. It's what led me to develop the 'Wheel of Lunch' with some of my consulting project teams. For all of us at the client, the hardest thing we ever had to do was figure out a place to go to lunch...because no one wanted to make a decision.

The solution, was a wheel with all the reasonable lunch choices on it. At lunchtime, there are no more decisions - you just spin and go. No more mental calories burned.

I mean, that's why we all get into routines - routines to wake up and get ready for work, routines at the gym - all because it saves our brain fuel tank from depleting.

Then not too long ago I read an article about Mark Zuckerberg and why he wears the same outfits every day:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had his first-ever public Q&A session on Thursday.

He answered a lot of questions, but the one that got a lot of interest was, “Why do you wear the same T-shirt every day?”

For those who haven’t noticed, Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt at most public events. While many expected a playful response, Zuckerberg gave a pretty serious answer for his penchant to wear the same gray shirt.

"I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community," Zuckerberg said, after clarifying that he had "multiple same shirts."

He said even small decisions like choosing what to wear or what to eat for breakfast could be tiring and consume energy, and he didn't want to waste any time on that.

A-ha - validation!

Of course - there is one problem with my effort to push off making small decisions. I usually try and push them off on my wife - but she's trying to do the same thing - so it just boomerangs.

I think we just need to get a roommate - then we can just push all of the decisions off on them.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sports Gambling - Closer than Ever

It was like a dream - I was reading something from a major sport commissioner about gambling, and it actually made sense!

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bit of a splash last week with an op-ed in the NY Times that, for the first time that I can recall, actually took a reasonable position with regard to sports gambling.

Since I've been paying attention, the only time a sports commissioner every spoke on the topic was to rail against it and its evil influence. So I was taken aback when Silver sounded downright reasonable:

"But I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated."

Wow - look at that crazy liberal commissioner! Such wild language!

But stepping aside the corporate-speak, the NBA finally appears willing to lend its support to states which want to legalize gambling. That's really big news, and for people who might want to place a bet someday, pretty nice.

Basketball also makes perhaps the most sense for the sport which would come out in support of gambling.

1 - It's a sport that attracts a fair amount of gambling and it pretty easy to bet on (compared to say, hockey or soccer, which don't have enough scoring)

2 - It's also a sport that's pretty hard for gamblers to directly influence, and I say that because basketball more than any other sport is concentrated in the hands of its superstars. The superstars dominate play, and they make a ton of money (helped by smaller roster sizes than football). If you want to get the Cavaliers to throw a game, great, just get LeBron on board -- you know how much that would take?

3 - The pristine reputation of NBA Officiating Oops, that one's actually kind of an issue, and something that will have to come up as this advances.

So the NBA would get on board, or at least not necessarily stand in the way, under the right conditions and regulations. That caveat does give the league an out if they ever want to reverse course - they can always oppose a specific gambling plan from a state if it's not 'appropriate' enough.

But the public has shown an increasing desire to gamble, and the NBA sees the potential to get more fans (or gamblers) pumped up for their games. The fact that there are now DAILY fantasy games - which is nothing more than gambling and something I don't remember even hearing about before this year - is proof that there's a growing market. In fact, the NBA just entered an exclusive partnership with Fanduel, a daily-fantasy provider, including taking an equity position in the company, which is another resounding sign the market potential is real. It also means DraftKings, the other primary daily game site, will be fighting tooth and nail over the NFL exclusive agreement. Either way, the leagues are going to make good money off these gambling sites, and this is even before true live wagering. Given the opportunity to cash in, it's asking a lot of leagues to continue to take a holier-than-thou stance against gaming.

Of course, almost immediately after the NBA came out in favor of gaming regulation - the NHL commissioner came out against it (despite their own exclusive agreement with DraftKings).

But that attitude from the NHL makes sense...they've never really shown an interest in being relevant anyway.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Increasing Voter Turnout

Last week, I voted in person for only the second time in my life. The first time, I think, was the 2004 Presidential election. I'd voted in other elections before, but always by absentee ballot - and after my moves to Chicago, New York, and Chicago again, I kept up voting in Pennsylvania because I felt my vote just mattered more as Pennsylvania presidential races were always closer in my home state.

But now that I've been back here in Chicago for a while, I felt like I had to switch over, and that's how I found myself at an Illinois polling place for the first time.

The experience was uneventful, unless you would've gotten a rise out of me trying to figure out why there were so many judge races and why most of them were candidates running unopposed. But it wasn't that inconvenient - just a couple minutes before I went to work.

It wasn't that hard for me, and so for something that seems so central to our government, it got me wondering why so few people actually care enough to do it. That, in turn, got me thinking about what the heck we could actually do to get people out there and incentivize more voting.

In trying to think about how we'd get more people to vote, I'm implying that I think everyone voting would be a good thing. That's probably not a universally accepted view, but that's my objective function (maybe there's some guy or girl out there trying to figure out how to make sure no one votes - probably the folks behind vote ID campaigns, but that's not my topic here)

So I thought - how might we get more people to vote - and would some of these tactics actually be possible?

Well - I thought it would make sense if we think of it as an equation.

Utility derived from voting - Cost of voting = 0

If that equation is set to zero, a voter would be indifferent between casting a vote and sitting at home. So, if we want to encourage more voting, we need to change at least one of those two dimensions. Let's start with the easier one:

Lowering the Cost of voting: People pay a price to cast their vote in US elections, a price in terms of their time and energy (hopefully not their dollars). So if we could engineer ways to lower that cost - people would be more likely to vote. So with that, some possibilities:

- Same-day voter registration: Oh wait, they already have this.

- Expanded voting period (early voting): Yes, the government already has this too, but why couldn't you extend it even further? Why not a full month or two when you can cast your vote? Making it more convenient would increase the turnout

- Simplify the ballots: My ballot here in Illinois was multiple pages, double-sided, and required you to fill in a line between two other lines to connect an arrow. If that sounds a bit confusing - you're absolutely right.

- Enter the digital era: Why the heck aren't we voting on apps at this point? I do all my banking and credit card stuff on my phone - I'd certainly be willing to throw my vote into the cloud too. Now lots of people don't have smartphones - but hey if you pull them out of line, you make election day that much more smooth

- Make election day a holiday: I'm not sure this would actually work, but if there are lots of folks who can't miss out on part of the workday to vote - then why not give us all an extra day off? We can stop taking off for Columbus Day or something- no one's going to miss Columbus Day. Of course, election day would need to get behind Leap Day in my order of days that should be made into national holidays, but it's totally a viable option

- My favorite, a tax credit for voting! Now I'm not actually advocating giving a tax break for voters, what I'm really advocating is throwing a tax increase on non-voters! The government knows everyone who pays taxes, and they know everyone who registers to vote, and they can figure out everyone who voted, and if it were me, I'd throw a tax increase on people who choose not to participate in the voting process (you could ensure all ballots include 'abstain' for the whiners who argue there's no good choice for them). I'd make the tax pretty big too - not in absolute terms, because that would be too regressive - but how about a 1% income tax surcharge? I bet you'd see more folks out on election day!

But what about the other side - actually improving the utility derived from voting. That's a bit trickier, but there are some options here too.

- Lengthen terms in office: This is a bit of a stretch, but stay with me. Everyone derives some level of utility from having a given candidate in office. Now, for some candidates, this utility might be hugely positive (someone who wants to declare every day Free Ice Cream Day), or it might be hugely negative (someone running on a platform of launching all cute baby ducks into the center of the sun). Well that utility would be magnified by lengthening the official's term in office. If Candidate Ice Cream was going to get 4 years instead of 2, you'd get MORE value from voting him into office.

- Pay the voters: You want someone to show up to a meeting in corporate america, throw in a free lunch - you'll get people who weren't even invited. Same concept would apply to voting. Put a more immediate incentive out there (rather than vague ideas of policy improvements), and people might actually show up. On a small scale, that could be the cookie they give to blood donors. On a bigger scale, it could be the same pay you give to jurors (which I assume is ridiculously small). In a theoretical world where we pay every voter $1000 - can you imagine anyone staying at home? I'm not saying we have to go that far - but compensation to encourage voting would, in my mind, be a totally viable option for consideration. (btw - of course cutting people a check for voting is a bit unseemly...George Washington rolling over in his grave and what not...but a more amenable solution might just be creating a voters-only lottery. You take money donated/put towards various get out the vote campaigns and create a massive lottery prize, like one of those crazy powerball drawings. Everyone who actually votes, their name gets thrown into the hat. If all the states can run lottery campaigns for themselves, why not do something similar to actually drive some civic participation?)

- Structurally reform legislatures such that voters will actually see some significant change and not just the absurd status-quo where it's all money-backed interests and nothing gets done: That's probably the least likely of any of these!