Article published Monday, November 24, 2008, at Fox News.

Obama Misses the (Extra) Point

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Politicians pose as the ultimate experts. They may never have worked in an industry or studied an issue before, but after few months of time on a topic they know everything: the types of cars that should be produced, the science of global warming, and how much doctors should charge for different types of surgery.

Outside of studying law, few in Congress even have backgrounds that are closely related to some of the issues covered by government. Just take the Senate this year, almost half, 45, are attorneys. Only one doctor, four farmers, 13 business people, seven teachers, four professors (all law, and three are listed as just adjuncts), and virtually all the others list their past experience as professional politician. No members of the Senate are scientists or economists. One member of the Senate played professional sports, and another owned a professional sports team.

A president and members of Congress deal with thousands of complicated topics each year. But is there anything politicians consider off limits?

Apparently not. Take President-elect Barack Obama’s foray last week into how college football should be run. Obama told CBS’s 60 Minutes:

"I think any sensible person would say that, if you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear, decisive winner, that we should be creating a playoff system. Eight teams, that would be three rounds to determine a national champion. It would -- it would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do."

One could surely debate the pros and cons over extended playoffs, and many fans will do so passionately. Some will even point out that we already have a one-game playoff for the two leading college teams.

Obama supports a particular plan -- an eight-team playoff -- to create a “decisive winner,” and he is right that extended playoffs would reduce uncertainty about who has the best team. Still, this won’t eliminate all doubts about who has the best team since a lot more than eight teams consider themselves in the top eight. There is always something more that could be done to further change the system.

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks with proposed change. Extended playoffs might well make the regular-season games less important. Right now there is a lot of pressure not to lose any games -- a single loss can determine whether a team makes the championship game. And playoffs would eliminate the bowl system, where bowl games allow a “rewarding postseason experiences for far more student-athletes than will ever play in a playoff,” according to University of Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman. A shortened regular season that would be necessary to accommodate the extended playoffs means that a lot of traditional rivalries couldn’t be played.

But this debate is really beside the point. The real question is: who should make the decision? Are politicians better at making this choice? Or are those who are directly affected by the decisions? Doesn’t Obama have more important issues to “throw [his] weight” around, anyway?

There is a reason why those most directly affected should make the decision. If colleges make the wrong decision, making college football less interesting, they are the ones who will lose. Their alumni and students will be disappointed.

Are those organizing college football so stupid they don’t realize the benefits that Obama claims exist for a playoff system? Why do we believe that so many people whose jobs are on the line for running colleges are less capable of making good decisions?

True, colleges aren't the same as for-profit firms that must directly and quickly answer to their customers and shareholders. But would those at the top not listen to fans, students, and alumni? Even donations from alumni depend on how much they identify with the school and the excitement that they feel about the team.

The arrogance of politicians can be seen in how politicians just assume that others are making mistakes. If “any serious fan of college football” agrees with Obama, why don’t we see extended playoffs?

The problem isn’t just with college football. Consider the recent debate over Congress bailing out the automobile industry. Democratic majority leader Harry Reid says Congress will give the automobile companies another $25 billion when they provide a “viable plan.” But how is Congress going to evaluate what a “viable plan” is better than the shareholders and bankers whose money is at stake? The auto companies presumably have to turn to Congress for money because others don’t think that they are good investments.

Would you want to invest in a company that congressmen tell you is a viable investment, or in companies where shareholders and banks are willing to put their own money?

Just something to remember during the coming months when Obama and other politicians start telling us how government should run health care or the energy industry. Why do you think that they are more likely to get those complicated industries right than they are to figure out whether college football should have playoffs?

*John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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