Economics watch, check that basketball evidence edition

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has done some interesting work, including analyzing Google data to identify anti-Black animus among American voters. In today’s New York Times he has an interesting piece about how NBA players disproportionately come from privileged backgrounds: richer zip codes, non-teenage mothers, married parents.

This is apparently based on evidence, data from the zip codes in which NBA players grew up and their biographies. But then he describes “the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes” And, astoundingly, comes up with this:

What are these advantages? The first is in developing what economists call noncognitive skills like persistence, self-regulation and trust.

And the evidence for that? A single anecdote (“consider the tragic tale of Doug Wrenn…”). Really?


I have an anecdote for you: Ty Lawson, the former UNC point guard who now plays for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. He seems to fit the profile. He started his career in middle school in Brandywine, Maryland (with a median household income of $108,ooo, twice the national average) before getting into the private-school basketball circuit. I don’t know if his parents were married, but they have the same last name. He is also less than 6 feet tall. So how is he in the NBA? Obviously, he has the incredible physical and mental ability to play at that level. That takes persistence, as well as some probable genetic advantages (his mother ran track). And, of course he is a paragon of self-regulation. Except for all that drunk driving, speeding, not showing up for court appearances, and domestic violence charges.* Throw it all under “non-cognitive skills,” I guess.

Forget the anecdotes. Could we at least consider the possibility that the richer schools of future-NBA stars devote more material resources to cultivating the talents of their most-talented athletes — coaching, facilities, attention? An economist (no offense) does some demographic research, and suddenly pronounces on social psychology without even pretending to offer evidence on what the “first” advantage of a privileged upbringing is? (The “second relative advantage” Stephens-Davidowitz cites is height, since rich kids grow taller.) You would think economists would at least consider the advantage of money itself.


*This criminal record shows an amazing combination of racial profiling (pulled over for loud music coming from the car, etc.) and basketball-town privilege (made to write a 4-page report on evils of drunk driving; “he’s just a rookie,” etc.). But that’s not the point.

2 thoughts on “Economics watch, check that basketball evidence edition

  1. For what it’s worth, the first part of the article – the socioeconomic background differences – aligns pretty closely with a paper we published last year ( drawing on media reports as our primary data source. If you’re looking for something making that point without the subsequent reaches in interpretation, might I recommend it?

    Liked by 1 person

Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s