Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Diminishing Marginal Utility? ...I think not!

So what’s Kobe’s motivation now? The Black Mamba just came off an incredible year, winning the gold medal in the Olympics with the U.S. Team, and then following that performance up with the NBA Championship and Finals MVP. Throw in a lot of “Kobe Doin’ Work” and his endless effort to prove himself paid off. But will he be just as hungry next year? Will we see the grinding teeth, fixated stare, intense physicality, and another six technical fouls in next year’s playoffs?

I recall a time when I made a bet with my friend Anand, whom we call Bobblehead because his head is always bobbling around (probably a little too much for an aspiring doctor). We were at Taco Bell and he bet me he can outeat me in bean burritos. So, knowing my capacity for the value meal item, I calmly scarfed down 5 big ones, while he choked on the third. In the beginning, I remember talking trash with him, saying that I had an Increasing Marginal Utility for Taco Bell, because after one bite, I just wanted more.

As an Economics major, however, I ultimately realized how wrong I was. The first taste is always the best. But then, I tried to make a case for Increasing Marginal Utility somehow, to prove that this phenomenon can somehow exist. Money? Don’t some people get happier as more and more cash flows into their piggies? Well, that is called greed, a diagnosis of the psyche that does not fall under the category of utility as much as a psychological need being temporarily fulfilled. Similarly, cigarettes are such that users who are addicted might need the next one more badly than the one they just smoked. But again, to keep matters simple, the addiction is a psychological need.

So if greed and addiction are insufficient in advocating the case for Increasing Marginal Utility, is there anything else that can save my argument?

Well, this may be a stretch, but how about Championship Rings? To understand this, try to follow this logic carefully.

Kobe had every reason to be hungry this year. He lost last year. He hadn’t won without Shaq. People said Lebron was better than him. And so on. With all the work that he put in this year, he said himself that this was his most satisfying championship of all because he had to climb the mountain from the bottom again.

Well, next year, I assure you that people will still say Lebron is better than him. People will say Kobe is older now and past his prime. Doubters will point out that the last time a team won back to back titles was when the Lakers did it with Kobe and (surprise surprise) Shaq! I’m pretty sure that’s enough motivation to get him pumped up again. And if he wins the championship again next year, wouldn’t that just be more satisfying than the one he just won?

Some may say that Kobe’s desire for more championships is just another form of greed to win as Magic or Michael or Bill Russel. But seriously, Kobe is one of the best competitors this sport has ever seen. Isn’t it simply that Kobe wants to win the championship every year than to prove he’s better than any of the historic greats? I honestly think so, and that’s why I believe in Increasing Marginal Utility when it comes to competition.

Economics will tell me that Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury were paid too much last year, and that Ben Gordon will probably be paid too much this year. But economics don't do justice in explaining the ferocity, hunger, and jubilation that we witness in great players and epic rivalries.

There is a constant need for self-improvement that we as humans greatly desire. I'm no psychologist but I can surely assume it has something to do with the limited time we have here on this precious Earth, and for athletes, even more limited time as professional athletes. That is why I strongly believe that diminishing marginal utility does not exist in sports competition. Every year, athletes like Kobe are faced with more challenges, more criticism, increased competition from the younger, fresher, newer generation of players, and aging.

I like to use these examples when it comes to utility and time. Wine. As time goes on, a wine tastes better and better. Increasing marginal utility. Or when a paleontologist discovers a new fossil. Increasing marginal utility. Or even better, for all of us who blog, another basketball game is arguably better than the last, because not only do we get to write about this one, but we get to compare it to the last. That is to say, a linear increase in games is an exponential increase in ideas, is it not?

Therefore, I would argue that for Kobe, a 5th championship would give him greater utility than the one he just won. Just imagine, what if he goes up against Shaq to win that 5th one?

BTW, I'll take on anyone in a burrito-eating contest...

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