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Delta Metaphorce

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Thursday, Aug 2, 2007

Paul Hochman, writing in Fortune, obviously loves the sport of cycling. He’s watched many Tours de France and has read up on its history of tactics and rider intrigue, of which there is plenty in each three-week painful march. But the reason Hochman presents his observations, and in Fortune, is to make the tortured argument that yet another unrelated phenomenon is proof of the wisdom and lessons of the free market.


This isn’t a new or isolated error. Countless pundits in print and other media seem to hew to the idea that if something is good, it must support their agenda: laissez faire is the font of all good, cats are good, therefore cats must offer support to the concept of laissez faire.


So, Hochman admires the Tour, and admires capitalism—both valid opinions. But why does there have to be a connection? And is such a connection warranted?
  
Hochman’s first equates “energy” with currency. That is, a rider must save energy—not tire himself out—so that he can spend it later in exchange for, in Hochman’s words, “international glory, TV time, a bright yellow jersey, attractive French girls.” If we accept his premise, we would see the Tour de France as a marketplace, with the enlightened and informed consumer working to save and then spend rationally.


But this equation doesn’t work, both in fact and in theory. Though it’s true that the racer who continually and wastefully attacks and plows into the wind solo (as Hochman notes, about 80 percent of your effort is just to push you through the air) is less likely to ride into Paris in a yellow jersey, doing just that at the right time can have a devastating effect. And each effort in fact requires the investment of more effort—an attack spawns a counterattack, which must in turn be countered until all but the victor is broken, all the way to the finish line (teamwork can “outsource” a lot of this effort, but watch a mountaintop finish and you’ll see the toll on individuals). By Hochman’s equation, the rider who makes no attacks, no efforts, has the most coin and should, therefore, win. And Hochman quickly abandons this literality of this conceit, as if he recognizes its weakness.


The “energy as currency” idea resurfaces in a slightly more abstract form later in the article, as Hochman compares professional racing pelotons to “resource-rich environments for energy traders”. Again, there’s a grain of metaphorical truth, as competitors and teams can attack each other and sometimes assist others, though of course with ulterior motives. But once you say something is actually an energy market, you have to see all that happens in such terms, which can lead to near-nonsensical statements such as “Pelotons are healthiest when the opposing forces in them are free to attack one another. The market needs liquidity, in other words. And in the case of bike racing, liquidity happens when an alpha rider simultaneously reassures everybody that someone is in charge—and scares the crap out of them.”


The greatest problem with Hochman’s piece (which, to be fair, is packed with good anecdotes from the Tour) is that it forces a metaphor—the Tour is the free market—and then forgets that metaphors are not and cannot be predictive. That is, if you say a war is an infection, you cannot win the war by sending antibiotics to the front, no matter what real-life item you choose as an analogue to antibiotics.


It’s the opposite of science, this Procrustean attitude towards facts and observation that must fit preconceptions, but it seems to drive much of U.S. politics and political efforts, from Iraq to Swiftboating to assuming and “family values” politician has a secret gay lover. When really, only a few do.

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