A Charity Premium and Premature Taxation, pt 2.

Previously we discussed whether or not there was a charity premium–whether money given to charity better invested for societal good than money given to the government. Before I (nervously) get into Part II, I wanted to briefly address some of the comments. I agree with Tom’s suggestion that money taken away from the government wouldn’t result in cuts in the most wasteful government programs but rather some of the least well-funded and socially useful. It’s a sad truth that the worst spending programs–farm subsidies, defense, expensive pensions–are the best represented by lobbyists. It’s unfortunate that the farm bill protects itself by holding school lunches hostage, and odd that it implies we can never get rid of pork barrel projects. The solution is not to starve the government into giving up its pork, but to first get rid of the pork, and put the government on the diet after (of course, it’s hard to starve someone with a triple-A rated credit card). We’re also not suggesting that charity replaces government services, or that government services could ever replace charity. Given the status quo balance between charitable donation and tax revenue, should we tip it a bit to encourage more charitable donation or tip it the other way to increase tax revenue (or keep the status quo)?

I bring all this up because of the recent reports on how Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are lobbying America’s billionaires to donate at least half of their wealth to charity. They would raise $600 billion if America’s portion of Forbes’ 400 richest list sign up. Buffett, of course, has pledged over 99% of his considerable wealth, much of it to a foundation that doesn’t even have his name on it. I think most reasonable people would agree that this type of generosity is pretty noble from all involved.

Bill and Melinda Gates.

Buffett made his currently-valued $47 billion fortune as a shrewd investor. He built up his investment machine, Berkshire Hathaway, from the ground up. Yet despite his wealth, he has always lived a relatively frugal life. He famously still lives in the Omaha house he purchased in 1957 for $31,500 ($242,000 in 2010). His biographer implies in The Snowball that Warren’s frugality was due to his drive to always make more money–instead of buying a new suit, Warren thought about how much money he could make if he invested the money instead, in his own company.

Money, of course, doesn’t compound in value solely for great money managers. Entrepreneurs who reinvest in their own business can afford to take less venture capital, increase their personal stake in the company, and amass greater fortunes later on. Taxing individuals at high rates early in their careers reduces their future net worths because it deprives those individuals of needed capital for their businesses. Of course, that’s also money the government uses in funding its programs.

Now if those future billionaires are intending to donate a large amount of their fortunes to charitable causes late in life or upon death, I wonder if it would be more efficient for the government to let the individual donate/”invest” the money for later instead of the government spending it now, as we theorize, inefficiently.

Perhaps there could be a plan where individuals who [contractually?] pledge to donate some very high percentage of their fortunes to pre-vetted charities should be taxed at lower rates until they get there. So for example, instead of taxing Warren Buffett at the highest rate all throughout his millionaire years when he was still building up Berkshire Hathaway, it could have been better to tax him at a lower rate then, wait for him to use that added capital to amass an even larger fortune than he has today, and then have him donate 99% of that even larger fortune.

One problem with this is that the government loses out on individuals who end up losing their wealth, so it’s a gamble that certain people will pay out handsomely in the future. Another criticism is that with the extra capital, people will either be more risky with their investments, or more profligate in their consumption, resulting in a smaller fortune in the end. These could be balanced out by the society/government achieving a much higher sum return (95% to charity might outweigh the yearly 4% additional taxes, particularly after accounting for the charity premium), and the fact that the wealthy will still be motivated by competition to do better, and by inheritance to still maximize the lesser portion of money their descendants get. There’s probably an upper-limit on consumption for most people. A lower and more palatable tax rate might also see less tax evasion and trickery from the wealthy. Finally, there’s an altruism/reputation bonus from charitable donation that the hated estate tax could never replicate.

This idea of course captures the existing anti-tax sentiment that high taxes can lower the productivity of the wealthy (as Alex mentioned, the dead-weight loss of taxation). The difference is that instead of saying the government makes up for the loss in tax revenue only through some overall higher GDP for the country, it also adds a likelihood for society to capture the increased productivity of those particular individuals through promised large charitable contributions later in life.

Test Prep Companies and the Power of Positive Thinking

I used to judge debate rounds, and, when I did, I always found it annoying when debaters would downplay the desirability of the activity. For example, it was a common trope for debaters to begin their speech by saying something like “Thanks, judge, for taking the time to judge debate when I’m sure there’re more exciting things you could be doing,” or (during the last round of the day), “We’ve made it almost all the way through the tournament, so we’ll try to be brief and get you out of here soon.”  This irks me because the debaters shouldn’t be apologizing for doing what they enjoy (even if it’s objectively nerdy and would bore many people). Don’t say you’re sorry about something you choose to do voluntarily; own your own actions.

Another activity that bores (and indeed depresses) many people is standardized testing, with which I have some experience. I’ve taught the LSAT on-and-off for four years (sometimes as a full-time job), and I’m currently using BarBri to study for the bar exam, which I’ll take at the end of July. Recently, while listening to a BarBri lecture (on property, I believe), an interesting difference between BarBri and the company that taught me the LSAT (TestMasters) came to mind, and I decided to write about it here: BarBri lecturers are constantly apologizing for the bar exam and, to a lesser extent, for their course (“This is really boring.” “I promise to get you out of here early.” “Hopefully you didn’t hate this awful, horrible, experience of studying for the bar.”) The culture of TestMasters, on the other hand, is very positive on the test it teaches: a great example of this is when I interviewed for the teaching position I eventually took with them, the founder of the company, Robin Singh, asked a question that boiled down to “Do you think the LSAT is a good test?” Sensing which way the wind was blowing, I replied “Yes” and gave several reasons. Mr. Singh responded “Exactly, and here are some more reasons why it’s a great test” and then spent several minutes singing the LSAT’s praises. BarBri’s corporate culture portrays the Bar Exam as an unfortunate obstacle to overcome; TestMasters generally perceives the LSAT as a worthy endeavor in which the company will assist you.

Now, it is certainly the case that the average taker of either the bar exam or the LSAT shares the BarBri approach: I hate this test; I just want to get it out of the way. Indeed, most sane people don’t take standardized tests just for the hell of it. Nevertheless, I like the TestMasters approach far better. I think there’s something of value in having a corporate culture that embraces the meaningfulness of the problem it is meant to solve. Think about it from the perspective of the instructor. If you teach to a test that you think is pointless and unpleasant, how can you be passionate about your work? If, on the other hand, you teach usable skills that manifest themselves on a fair examination that tests important abilities, then you will care much more about the product of your work and do a far better job for your students. A company that’s apologetic about it’s core purpose can’t possibly motivate its employees and care about its customers to the extent that an organization that takes pride in its function would do so. A person that’s embarrassed about what they do for a living should probably find another a job; a company that whines about its own reason for existence should probably just go bankrupt.

Brazil v. Ivory Coast and World Cup Game Theory

In keeping with the World Cup series of posts, here’s a quick post today highlighting some interesting cases of game theory in World Cup play, historical and current.

Last World Cup in 2006, I read a Slate article describing how penalty kicks represent a perfect application of game theory in the real world. The situations are predictable and controlled, and the number of choices are extremely limited, providing for an easy model. In a penalty kick, a free kick is taken by one player twelve yards from the opposing team’s goal, with only the goalie of the defending team to protect the goal. There are only a handful of choices for the kicker to make, most importantly which direction to kick the ball–to the goalie’s right, left, or straight center–and to some extent whether to drive it to the high corner or low corner. For the goalie then, he must choose to go to his right, left, or stay in the center. According to the Slate writer, “Game theory, applied to the problem of penalties, says that if the striker and the keeper are behaving optimally, neither will have a predictable strategy. The striker might favor his stronger side, of course, but that does not mean that there will be a pattern to the bias.”

Professionals such as the French superstar Zinédine Zidane and Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon are apparently superb economists: Their strategies are absolutely unpredictable, and, as the theory demands, they are equally successful no matter what they do, indicating that they have found the perfect balance among the different options. These geniuses do not just think with their feet.

Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner also tackled the question in a recent piece for The Times (U.K.). They concluded that the best option was to kick the ball straight down center: “One strategy proved considerably more likely to score a goal than any other. It wasn’t shooting to the left. And it wasn’t shooting to the right. The wisest choice is to kick the ball straight down the centre. And yet that was the least-common choice.” This optimal strategy was the least common because it didn’t take into account the preferences of the kicker, who wanted not only to score, but to hedge against looking the utter fool. A kicker who kicks it straight down the middle and has his shot blocked will be the subject of scorn for making the seemingly ridiculous choice of kicking it straight at the goalkeeper.

In addition to penalty kicks, game theory in the group set-up can also come into play when deciding how to play an individual match. In the World Cup, the top two teams of each four-team group will advance to the knock-out rounds. In the Mind Your Decisions blog, Presh Talwalker recounts an incident in the 1982 FIFA World Cup:

West Germany played Austria in the last match of group B. A West German victory by 1 or 2 goals would result in both teams advancing; any less and Germany was out; any more and Austria was out (and replaced by Algeria, who had just beaten Chile). West Germany attacked hard and scored after 10 minutes. Afterwards, the players then proceeded to just kick the ball around aimlessly for the remainder of the match. Algerian supporters were so angered that they waved banknotes at the players, while a German fan burned his German flag in disgust. By the second half, the ARD commentator Eberhard Stanjek refused any further comment on the game, while the Austrian television commentator Robert Seeger advised viewers to switch off their sets.

He describes another perverse incentive in the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup. Goals in overtime (sudden death) would count double, to reward teams in close matches.

Barbados needed to win by two goals. With less than ten minutes left in the match, Barbados led by exactly two goals and began to play very defensively. In the 83rd minute, Grenada finally scored, making the score 2-1. Barbados tried to answer but, with only three minutes remaining, was unable to score. Members of the Barbados team contemplated their options. To advance, they needed either to score one more goal in the last three minutes (winning by two), or force the game to extra time where a goal would count as if they won by two. Barbados scored on their own net, tying the game at 2-2.

This is not yet the odd part of the match. The Grenada players, initial shock abating, developed their own strategy. If they could score on Barbados in the waning minutes, they would win the match and advance. But, if they could score a goal on themselves, they would lose by one goal which was still enough to advance. For two minutes, Grenada tried to score on either goal, with Barbados players split between defending their own goal and that of their opponents!

Normal time ended in a tie and the game did go to overtime, in which Barbados scored a game winner and advanced (though was eliminated from the tournament in the next round). No penalties for the players’ actions in this game were handed down since both teams were earnestly trying to win their group, and the farce was the result of silly incentives.

Today in watching the Brazil v. Ivory Coast game, I witnessed some poor game theory on the part of the Ivory Coast team. Brazil had taken a commanding 3-0 lead, and were virtually guaranteed to win the game. In fact, according to the announcers, Brazil had never even lost a game where they led 1-0 at halftime. Didier Drogba scored for the Ivory Coast on a good header to make it 3-1, but still the game was likely out of reach for the underdogs. In the 87th minute near the conclusion of the game, Ivory Coast player Kader Keita ran into Kaka’s elbow, and dropped to the ground clutching his mouth. It was a clear dive, because nothing was near Keita’s mouth at all, and additionally he had run into Kaka. Kaka walked away amid some shouting and tension, and soon received a yellow card. It was his second yellow card of the tournament, which equaled a red card, forced him out of the remainder of the match, and suspending him for Brazil’s final Group game against Portugal. As the NYTimes reported:

The midfielder went off, improved from his opening showing but losing the chance to collect more precious minutes against Portugal, minutes he might need given any rustiness born of his injury-addled first season with Real Madrid that saw him play only 22 matches.

In fact, with Brazil in commanding lead of Group G with 6 points from two wins, guaranteed to advance (likely as the top seed), and Portugal and Ivory Coast now tied at only one point, it is actually the Ivory Coast that will miss Kaka’s “precious minutes against Portugal.” If Ivory Coast beats North Korea in their final Group game, and Brazil beats or ties Portugal, Ivory Coast can advance. If Ivory Coast only draws against North Korea, but Brazil beats Portugal, Ivory Coast will advance. Therefore, Ivory Coast should want Brazil playing at top form against their primary opponents for the second spot out of Group G. They should have preserved Kaka’s (ranked 4th best footballer in the World Cup by ESPN) eligibility for the next game. Thus, an inopportune red card for the Ivory Coast.

edit::

I made a mistake in reading the schedule and misrepresented the situations in which Ivory Coast can advance. Portugal currently at 1 pt still has 2 games left against North Korea, then Brazil, so the scenarios are more diverse than I implied. Either way, Ivory Coast should want Brazil with their best player when playing Portugal.

Ivory Coast player clutches mouth as he dives.

Ivory Coast player runs into Kaka's elbow.

The World Cup 2010 and Facebook

The World Cup Trophy

Many Americans are paying attention to competitive soccer for the first time in years because of the prospects of this year's US team. What's in store for US soccer? (ESPN.com)

Everyone watching the US vs. Slovenia World Cup game on Friday morning knows it was a great game. Soccer is growing in popularity in the US (at least right now) because this year’s national team is a good one and has a chance to make a run into the elimination rounds of the World Cup final. But because of the time zone difference between the US and South Africa, millions of Americans are caught on the brink of committing to soccer but unable to watch the games at home on TV. This has lead to a greater focus on Internet marketing and broadcasting, allowing people to watch the games online. Some people still didn’t get to watch the game. But what the time zone difference definitely couldn’t stop was people’s commentary on the World Cup game between the US and Slovenia.

As I watched the game, I noticed that commentary on the World Cup game was dominating my news feed on Facebook. Through its chat client, private messaging, the links posted and the statuses updated in people’s news feeds, Facebook has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. I began to ponder after the game the massive scope of what Facebook does to connect us with other people around the world. I figured that the World Cup game was a better time than any to measure how many people’s opinions Facebook connects me to in any given day.

So I went through my Facebook newsfeed and compiled a list of all the people who referenced the World Cup in their status, commented on the World Cup, or commented on other people’s comments on the World Cup during and after the 10:00AM EST game. The list is below the fold as an Appendix (to read, click on the title of the post or click “Read more…” at the end of the post). For now, I’ll just summarize the results, since the sheer multitude of reactions I found allow me to create something of a zeitgeist with my findings:

facebook logo

Facebook is changing our lives in ways we take for granted. This morning, I received the opinions of approximately fifty people on the World Cup game I was watching.

Overall, using Facebook, I received the opinions of 37 (thirty seven) friends and 13 (thirteen) other people about the World Cup match, both while and in the first few hours after it happened. That’s a total of 50 (fifty) people. I have 601 (six-hundred and one) friends on Facebook, which means that I received the opinions of approximately 1/12 (one-twelfth) of my friends. Pretty cool. Here’s a bit of a breakdown:

Only one person cheered for Slovenia. Eleven people (22%) cheered for the United States (though most people who were complaining about the referees were certainly sympathetic to the United States more generally). One person, he recently married my cousin actually, booed the United States, but that was over their poor play early in the game.

fifa world cup soccer

One of my friends posted a picture that demonstrated why the referee's call was bad.

A lot of people complained about a controversial refereeing decision made by Malinese referee Koman Coulibaly (poor guy, it was his first World Cup finals match ever). Sixteen (32%) of my friends complained about the referees, but six additional friends made jokes about the referee, and more blamed the referee for the loss.

A significant chunk of the people just “liked” something that was posted by someone else. Facebook recently added a feature that allows users to “like” individual comments beneath statuses; however, no one used that feature to like a comment about the World Cup.

Most people in my news feed were acquaintances or family friends, but a small minority included my roommate, my immediate family, and some former debate partners. A friend of mine posted a funny video of Robin Williams’ comedy routine that featured a bit about the referees.

As you may know, David set up the StoneSoup World Cup Fantasy League last week on ESPN.com. As I like to get into some of the extreme patriotism that is so clearly wildly popular among my friends (at least according to my news feed), I believe I am the only person in the league who has picked the US to win the World Cup. As such, I am paying a lot of attention to the games – getting up in the morning on a Friday I have off was something I haven’t done for a sports event in a while. But if my news feed is any indication, it seems that plenty of my friends are just as excited as I am.

Continue reading

A Charity Premium and Premature Taxation, pt 1.

All things being equal, is it better to have tax revenue or untaxed charitable donations? From a taxation point of view, I think the fact that we don’t tax donations to non-profits indicates that we believe whatever percentage that would have gone to the Treasury is better spent by a non-profit, whether American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or even individual private schools and universities.

The reputation of government spending does little to suggest otherwise. Politicians’ pet projects can be notoriously wasteful. Though perhaps Josh can better comment on this, Boston’s Big Dig cost $14.6 billion to push a 3.5 mi. highway underground. Cost effective? The infamous bridge to nowhere, the Gravina Island Bridge, was projected to cost nearly $400 million, all to connect a city less populous than this author’s New Jersey suburb to an island of 50 residents and an airport.

Government benefits and pension plans are so generous they have been bankrupting states during this recession. The fattest pension check in New York State weighs in at a whopping $261,037 annually, all while the holder simultaneously earns $280,000 in salary as SUNY Albany president. And of course, 20 cents of every dollar taxed these days goes into the Defense or Homeland Security Budget and deceptively, a borrowed nickel goes to the separate, unbudgeted, and outrageously expensive Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Always frustrating is government spending financing the government debt, which of course is expected to increase due to recession borrowing. And if we value current worldwide suffering more than potential suffering of indebted Americans, it’s better to spend money helping people now than later.

For many, government spending priorities just don’t reflect those of rational and progressive citizens. I’m not even talking about libertarians, though as Josh pointed out, the existence of a charity premium is a strong case for a smaller government. Spending $663 billion on Defense while Energy gets $26 billion, National Science Foundation gets $7 billion, and NIH gets $32 billion. For people interested in… say, science research and a cure for cancer… this is not an ideal allocation of resources. Donating to Columbia University, on the other hand, or Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or the Susan G. Komen Foundation, can seem like a smarter way of promoting more important societal goods.

It’s hard to imagine that particularly efficient charities like the Gates Foundation, or Partners in Health, or any of the others we’ve named so far, couldn’t spend their money better, and create more utility for people, than the U.S. government. This suggests that there’s a “charity premium” (if I may boldly coin a term) when your dollar is invested by a good non-profit instead of by the government. Put another way, if you could choose to either donate your money to the government, or donate it to charity, donate it to charity.

A few criticisms. Are charities more efficient than government agencies? Not all, but some, certainly. Charities are independently rated. On Charity Navigator, for example, any charity that spends less than 30% of its budget on program expenses automatically gets zero stars. Charities that spend too much of its budget on fundraising similarly are downgraded. Of course, it can be possible to fudge the numbers in order to game the ratings. For example, opening an office in New York is an administrative expense. Opening an office in Sri Lanka, on the other hand, can be written off as a program expense. However, there are runaway hits. Freakonomics authors reported that “Smile Train has performed more than 280,000 cleft surgeries in 74 of the world’s poorest countries, raising some $84 million [in 2007] while employing a worldwide staff of just 30 people.” There could also be increased regulation and oversight of non-profit reporting, and non-profits that do not meet certain goals could be downgraded by the government itself, and donations to these non-profits may be taxed. In terms of salaries and pensions, I suspect that anyone who has looked at Idealist.org or worked for a non-profit would agree that overall, non-profit spending on salaries is pretty reasonable. “I work for a non-profit” is universally accepted as a euphemism for sacrificing earning power to contribute toward a higher good.

While libertarians would love the existence of a charity premium, I don’t think the charity premium necessarily endorses all of the libertarian agenda. There are some services that non-profits or profit-driven organizations cannot tackle. Defense spending may be bloated, but simply for legal and liability reasons private entities wouldn’t be able to field even a defensive army, much less continuously invest in weapons that likely aren’t going to be used. Expensive long-term projects might not be able to bear the risk of a non-profit hitting a bad fund-raising year, so government deficit spending flexibility can be a good thing. Private administration of  justice would be profoundly unjust. And un-flashy places to invest, like building a road in poor rural part of American, would simply go undone without government.

Still, as long as there are clearly bloated areas of government spending, common stories of corruption, extensive government waste, and over-generous retirement packages, I conclude that the government should be making do with less. In that case, more utility comes from donating your money to a charity than to the government. More improvement of human life is obtained when a non-profit invests the 35% of your charitable donation that would otherwise be going to the Treasury.

So in this blog post we’ve discussed whether there is a charity premium on money spent. Return for Part 2, where I hope to propose a change to tax policy (above the deductibility of charitable donations) to take advantage of the charity premium.

Reading assignment for next post: Gates & Buffett campaign to raise $600 billion from America’s super-rich.

Game 7 of the Finals: A Preview

Tonight’s the big night, Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The significance of this game — and this rivalry — to basketball cannot be overstated. This is the Lakers and Celtics’ twelfth Finals meeting against each other; the two franchises hold more than thirty championships. The Celtics seek to win their 18th championship, their second in the last three years; Kobe and the Lakers are looking to repeat, and become the first NBA team to repeat since Kobe and Shaq three-peat at the start of the decade.

Prior to the Finals, Bill Simmons wrote a preview outlining the impact this game could have on the legacies of various players. Going to a Game 7 puts a lot of these predictions in perspective. In one game, several players could move up the list of the greatest players of all time–or fail, in their last opportunity to do so.

The “Big Three” Celtics

It’s fitting that this series has made it to a seventh game, because these Celtics have gone on a remarkable run. They’ve beaten some of the best players in the NBA in quick succession: a 5-game close-out against Dwyane Wade and the Heat; their destruction of LeBron and the Cavs (with a ridiculous 29-18-13 from Rondo in Game 4); Pierce lighting up the Magic (with Nate Robinson helping out in Game 6); and a (potential) upset over Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, the long-time favorites.

All this while coming off a lethargic regular season riddled with injuries, and a championship for Boston makes the “Big Three” Celtics a true NBA dynasty, to be judged against the Spurs or Lakers as one of the best teams of the era. They’d have only two championships, to Shaq’s and Duncan’s three, but a championship this year could raise doubts as to whether Garnett’s injury last year cost them a three-peat.

Rajon Rondo

Rondo: best player on the Celtics? Best PG in the NBA? He's definitely made his mark in the playoffs.

For Ray Allen, this has been a strange series: A record-setting performance in Game 2, followed by 0-fers in the next three games. He wasn’t the reason for their loss on Tuesday, with 19 points, but a big game for Allen in Game 7 could be a game-changer for his legacy. Bill Simmons has said that Allen’s already passed Reggie Miller on his basketball “pyramid;” another NBA Championship (and possible MVP honors if he really lights it up) could propel him above even more of the greatest NBA players. Oh, and he’s a free agent after the season, too.

The impact of this game on Paul Pierce‘s legacy may be even more significant. The MVP of the Finals in 2008, Pierce had his best performance this series in Game 5, the Celtics’ triumphant final game at home. If the Celtics win the series tonight, Game 5 will be remembered as the game where the Celtics took control. If Pierce is dominant and the Celtics win, he has a chance at his second NBA Finals MVP award in three years. A performance like that would shoot Pierce way up the list of NBA greats.

Kevin Garnett‘s situation is more complicated. As Bill Simmons noted, Garnett has reinvented himself over the last year or so, becoming more of a complementary player than the dominant force he used to be. A championship definitely moves Garnett up the ranks, but Garnett’s legacy as a great player already exceeds that of Pierce and Allen.

I actually disagree with most of Simmons’ predictions regarding Rajon Rondo. Winning the Finals doesn’t make Rondo the best point guard in the NBA (though best-defending Point Guard is probably already true); nor would a championship make him “The Athlete With The Highest Approval Rating In Boston” (that title, I think, goes to Tom Brady or Dustin Pedroia). Then again, Rondo hasn’t had a great series, except for Games 2 and 5. Still interesting, though, is that he still has a chance at Finals MVP (with his big performances in Boston’s most important wins) and that two titles this early in his career could put him on a Hall of Fame trajectory (which would give this Celtics team FOUR Hall of Fame players). That being said, Rondo needs to improve his Free Throw shooting (his % has gone down in each of the succeeding playoff series this year) and his jump shooting in order to pass Chris Paul (or Nash or Deron Williams) as the best PG in the NBA.

The Kobe Bryant Lakers

Kobe Bryant

This game could put Kobe solidly in the top 10 players of all time. Or it could cast doubt on his sole championship without Shaq. Tonight we'll find out.

With Gasol, Fisher, and Artest inconsistent, the real story here is Kobe Bryant. Kobe has been fantastic, though his 30-7-4 with 43% shooting in the Finals has been worse than his performance against the Suns or the Jazz. While he got in foul trouble in Game 2, a key game for the Celtics, and he’s been inconsistent from long range, Kobe has undoubtedly been the MVP of the Lakers–and if the Lakers win the championship, he’ll almost certainly be Finals MVP.

But that’s what it comes down to. Game 7 will have a bigger impact on the legacy of Kobe Bryant than any other player on the court. A loss throws the 2009 championship into question (with Garnett’s injury keeping the Celtics out of the Finals) and may leave an asterisk on his career (*never beat the Celtics). If he wins, he’s solidly in the top-10 of all time… with no end in sight. This could be the most important game of Kobe’s career — finally on his own, series entirely on his shoulders, against the Laker’s most hated enemy.

Predictions

Interestingly, both of the two people I talk to most about basketball said the same name when I asked for predictions about Game 7, and it’s a guy whose name is not mentioned above: Rasheed Wallace.

Here are their predictions:

“Sheed plays the game of his life. Rondo breaks free. Key 3 pointers are the keys. LA’s bench chokes. Pierce will have double-digit rebounds. Boston 96 LA 90.” – Garron

“Rasheed Wallace has got to get down in the low post and make a difference. If he can hold his own in the post, the Celtics will take Game 7. If he drifts out to the perimeter and jacks up long 3s, LA is taking home the title.” – Will

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of either team (I’m a New York sports fan). I do like Ray Allen (a UConn alum) and I’m definitely interested in the potential history-making. My prediction, however, is less optimistic than my fellow Bostonians: Lakers by 10. While I wouldn’t mind seeing Boston take home another championship while I’m here, I think there’s too much on the line for Kobe. I think he’s going to show us why he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. LeBron James is probably the best player in basketball right now, but Kobe Bryant is close and Kobe definitely has a more well-rounded game. A clutch moment tonight could cement that in people’s minds. What’s more, without Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics will (as mentioned above) rely on Rasheed Wallace. I’m not confident the Celtics won’t get dominated inside.

But anything can happen. Odom and Gasol will need to show up, and the Lakers need to limit the damage inflicted by Artest when he starts jacking up 3s. What’s more, a return to form from Garnett or Pierce could turn things upside-down (like Game 5) even with a virtuoso performance from Kobe. For a new basketball fan like myself (or for anyone with even a marginal interest in sports), it’ll definitely be worth watching.

Our True Blood Marathon

Last weekend, my roommate Will and I embarked on an odyssey that we won’t soon forget. Over a 48 hour period spanning Friday evening to the Sunday night premiere of HBO’s hit series “True Blood,” we watched its first two seasons, each with 12 hour-long episodes. Aside from two 8-hour periods of sleep, that left us with only 8 hours of the weekend for non-True-Blood-related activities, such as eating, going to the bathroom, or watching the Celtics beat the Lakers.

We planned out the weekend hour-by-hour, in order to make sure we saw the entire series before the season premiere (our planning board is below). We also knew we’d have to stock up on snacks (and cook for ourselves) because any time we spent eating (or running to the convenience store) would be time not spent watching the show. We didn’t really look into what effect this would have on our health, though we probably should have.

our schedule for the weekend

As you can see, we set aside time for the priorities. Sleep, food, and USA vs. England.

I won’t do an episode-by-episode breakdown of the series; however, we did live-tweet the marathon. You can see our general feelings about the show there, along with a whole lot of self-promotion (we got 15 followers!) Twittering the marathon was fun. When we had problems with our Comcast Digital Cable, we threatened Comcast over that we would switch to DirectTV, which got us a quick response that (mostly) solved our issue (We’re watching you, @comcastcares!). Eventually, though, the tweets basically devolved into obnoxious random hashtags (#selfreferential).

In the end, the marathon was totally worth it. We finished the show with forty minutes before the premiere, leaving us some time to watch the Celtics gain an early lead on the Lakers. What’s more, it helped me better understand the premiere, though I was slightly delirious. This isn’t the kind of show you need to watch every episode to understand, but knowing who all the characters are and when they’ve cropped up before is helpful. Will, Josh, and the gang have been considering more marathons as more season premieres come up (Entourage, Mad Men, and Dexter have been bandied about, fire up the Twitter engines…) I’m in favor: watching a series in succession really gives one a chance to consider it as an artistic whole. 24 episodes in 48 hours was a little extreme, though.

Jason Stackhouse became our Twitter profile pic for the evening. Jason Stackhouse was our favorite character.

As for the series True Blood, I have to give it some props. The show is a lot like Dexter, and as Josh has put it, shows like Dexter can be very enjoyable, even when artistically mediocre. One may be deceived into thinking True Blood is an art series (à la The Wire or The Sopranos), with its irreverent parody of Southern culture and the gay rights movement (“God Hates Fangs”), but the show is a soap opera at heart. It does soap opera well. The constant flow of new subplots and sex scenes keep the show moving, and do a good job of balancing the light and dark comedy. It’s a great guilty pleasure, which perhaps explains why it’s one of HBO’s biggest successes since “Sex and the City.” It’s got something to offer for everyone: drinking, partying, drugs, sex, more sex, and weird vampire stuff too.

For what it’s worth, I appreciate the show even though I actually don’t think it was all that well suited for a marathon. Because it’s more of a TV-show–rather than an art-show–24 hours of True Blood began to run together and it became easy to lose my attention. It’s a fun show, but I’m sure it will be more fun now that I watch it once a week.

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