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A weekend thought: my father is the kind of guy who likes to come up with big monocausal theories to explain every little thing; he missed his calling as a columnist for a major newspaper. Anyway, last week we were chatting and he expounded on one of these theories, in this case a coherent and compelling narrative for the dramatic increase in dog ownership in recent years. The theory is unimportant (it had to do with a decline in aggregate nachas) but afterwards I decided for the heck of it to fact-check his theory. And what do you know? According to the AVMA’s pet census, dog ownership rates have declined, very slightly, from 2007 to 2012.

Now, I know why my dad thought otherwise – over the past few years, dogs have become fantastically more visible in the environments he inhabits, mainly, urban and near-suburban NYC. I am certain that, compared to 5-10 years, ago, many more dogs can be seen in public, more dog parks have emerged, and there are many more stores offering pet-related goods-and-services. But these are intertwined with substantial cultural and demographic changes, and authoritatively  not driven by a change in the absolute number of dogs or dog-ownership rate.

It’s hard to prove things with data, even if you have a lot of really good data. There will always be multiple valid interpretations of the data, and even advanced statistical methods can be problematic and disputable, and hard to use to truly, conclusive prove a single interpretation. As Russ Roberts is fond of pointing out, it’s hard to name a single empirical econometric work that has conclusively resolved a dispute in the field of economics.

But what data can do is it can disprove things, often quite easily. While Scott Winship will argue to death that Piketty’s market-income data is not the best kind of data to understand changes in income inequality, but what you can’t do is proclaim or expound a theory explaining a decrease in market income inequality. This goes for a whole host of things – now that data is plentiful, accessible, available, and manipulable to a degree exponentially vaster than any before in human history, it’s become that much more harder to promote ideas contrary to data. This is the big hidden benefit to bigger, freer, better data – it may not conclusively prove things, but it can most certainly disprove them, and thereby help better hone and focus our understanding of the world.


Frank DeFord, in some sort of ramble about the way things used to be versus the way they are today which I’m not sure I really understood (though, to be fair, I don’t really ever understand anything he says, about anything, really) mentions that Greater New York has “nine, count ’em, nine” professional teams in a tone that suggests that that is just too darn many.

But it’s really not. If you wanted to take the four major leagues’ 122 teams and distribute them about the US and Canada to represent the share of population in each metro area, well, Greater New York houses about 6.7% of all folks north of the Rio Grande, and 9 out of 122 is 7.4%, so perhaps a slight overrepresentation given that 8 out of 122 is 6.6%. Ironically, the overrepresentation seems to come from hockey, where Greater NY has three teams; it has two in every other league.

In fact, its the smaller cities that are substantially overrepresented. Take Indianapolis, which has just over one-half of one percent of combined Amero/Canuck pop. Yet it has the Pacers and the Colts, triple its “natural” share.

Of course, not all sports preferences are distributed evenly, and specifically the NFL doesn’t compete in Canada, making these guesstimates very rough indeed. But there’s nothing terribly unjust about the number of teams in the Big Apple.

Now, if I were DeFord, the point I would have made is just how much measures to coercively redistribute resources between teams to enforce equality of opportunity has not only increased the ability of non-dynastic teams to succeed but has also been extremely positive for the overall economic health of the leagues. The median NFL team today is worth ~75% more than the median NFL team in 2003, which outpaces the S&P 500 by 10pp over the same period, and the mean has increased even faster.

Of course, DeFord may have been making this point, and I just didn’t understand it. I don’t really understand his points, ever.

Of course, the even better point to make would have been “the Green Bay Packers are a far better model for sports franchises than private ownership and big-city mayors should refuse to fund stadia a penny with tax dollars unless the team is sold to the city.”


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