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The secret to George Will’s success? Decisions based on baseball

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If there’s a common thread through the life of George Will, the conservative columnist and intellectual who has been influencing American politics for 50 years, it’s likely the sport of baseball.

Growing up in Champaign, Illinois, Will was an equal distance between Chicago, where the White Sox and Cubs play, and St. Louis, where the Cardinals play.

“At an age too tender to make life-shaping decisions, I had to choose, and I chose the Cubs. All my friends became Cardinals fans and grew up cheerful and liberal. And I became a gloomy conservative,” said Will, in a conversation with David Axelrod.

“Losing is supposed to build character and boy, do I have character,” he said.

In a conversation today with The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer, Will discusses his lonely outpost in American conservative politics after the Trump years, his gradual shift toward stronger libertarianism and, of course, the pennant prospects of the Toronto Blue Jays.

At 80 years old, Will has had a remarkable career in journalism but, without baseball weighing heavily in his decision-making, he may have spent his life as a relatively unremarkable lawyer.

When he had to choose between Harvard Law School and PhD studies at Princeton, Will settled for Princeton because it was midway between two National League baseball cities: Philadelphia and New York. The decision between those two schools was the difference between embarking on a law career and becoming an academic, and it was his eventual career as an academic that brought him to Washington, D.C. and a life as a political writer.

Will’s opinion-writing has earned him a syndicated column, a Pulitzer Prize, and a reputation for erudition. His profile was even large enough in the 1990s to win him a mention on the sitcom Seinfeld, in which Kramer describes him as an attractive man, although admits that he doesn’t “find him all that bright.”

Will taught briefly at the University of Toronto until Gordon Allen, a United States senator and chairman of the Republican policy committee, decided he wanted a Republican academic to write for him.

“It was 1969. There were no Republican academics except me, and I was in Canada,” said Will, in a conversation with David Axelrod.

Will took the job in D.C., almost entirely due to curiosity as a fledgling political scientist, hoping to see how things were done in the real world.

He had planned to go back to Toronto until he accidentally talked himself into a job at National Review magazine, which was becoming a raucous and influential voice on the right. (One wonders if Will would have been more inclined to stay in Toronto if the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, which was founded in 1977, had arrived on the scene a few years earlier).

In a conversation with the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley, Will argued that National Review needed a Washington editor.

“Bill essentially said, ‘you’re right I do, and you’re it,'” said Will.

Will started his job in 1973, right in the thick of the Watergate scandal, and his drumbeat of columns criticizing Richard Nixon caused an uproar among the magazine’s readership and donors, so much so that Will noticed that “subscription cancellations and George Will” were essentially the same category in the monthly National Review mail analysis.

In the Donald Trump years, Will led a similar drumbeat against the Republican president, who he argued had a “comprehensive disdain for conservative essentials.” Forty years later, Will was similarly politically homeless and the target of ire from people who had previously considered him an ideological ally.

On the issues, though, he has mostly remained steadfast, although he has leaned more into his libertarian sensibilities and has grown to further appreciate the benefits of the free market.

One of Will’s primary concerns right now is the potential for generational conflict brought about by the “tremendous social achievement” of increased human longevity. With an ageing population, free-spending governments, and entitlement programs that are an ever-increasing part of government budgets, the burden on new generations is rising.

“The elderly are looting the futures of the rising generation,” said Will, in a conversation with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast

In that episode, Roberts paused the episode to marvel at Will’s ability to recall facts and quotations from memory, with no crib notes or notepad in front of him.

“How do you keep track of this? Do you have a technique? Do you have a system? Or do you just have a big brain?” asked Roberts.

“I blame baseball. I grew up memorizing statistics and thinking about Jimmie Foxx. I shudder to think how many of my brain cells are devoted to this. It just sticks,” said Will.

This Nobel Prize winner thinks open source software is Canada’s ticket to growth

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In the last decade, Microsoft Windows has seen its market share more than cut in half, plummeting from nearly 100 percent to below 40 percent.

The competitor that did the damage was Google, a rival behemoth that now dominates the tech world with its Android operating system that runs on phones, tablets, and even stripped-down laptops.

But it wasn’t all Google. Android is open source software, which means anyone can download the code and play around with it. Other manufacturers can take the Android engine and use it to power a device, meaning they don’t have to build their own operating system or license one.

Windows is a closed, proprietary system and has always drawn the ire of the open source community. Android grew out of the Linux operating system, a long-time favourite of coders and assorted nerds who enjoy its versatility and reputation as an anti-Windows upstart.

Android’s rise is an example of how knowledge and ideas are vital to economic growth, the insight that won Paul Romer a Nobel Prize. It’s a phenomenon that British author Matt Ridley described as “ideas having sex with each other.”

Romer, who is also the former chief economist of the World Bank, made the case at a summit hosted by The Coalition for a Better Future in Ottawa last week that open source software and the creative energy that accompanies it could be one way to jump-start Canada’s lacklustre growth.

With so many smaller countries looking to build one big tech company, like Google or Microsoft, why not create an open source ecosystem that bristles with creative, innovative ideas?

“The rest of the world is going to specialize in trying to have tech giants that are monopolists and building ‘unicorns.’ There’s a huge opportunity for other countries to be the places that are the home for open innovation that’s really very much in the spirit of science,” said Romer.

Whether this community grows in the private sector or in a university research environment doesn’t matter much. It’s the ideas and knowledge that do all the work, said Romer.

“One of the messages I would give to Canada or any other country in a similar position is think about how you could make yourself the place which is the leader in all of these open source kinds of efforts,” said Romer.

“Get the collateral benefits of being close to those as generators of ideas. And you have the private activity which will build actively on the public activity,” he said.

The summit has drawn criticism, especially from more market-oriented thinkers, who see it as an exercise in central planning.

Although Romer issued a stark warning against picking economic winners and losers in his speech, he also joked to the National Post that he was a “recovering University of Chicago economist” and said he does see a role for government in juicing innovation and economic growth.

“History has shown that rapid, sustainable, and widely distributed economic growth is never the result of central planning,” wrote Matthew Lau in the Financial Post, in a piece that worried the summit was saddling businesses with all kind of goals beyond producing goods and services that benefit society.

Romer argued that the market works most of the time, for example when it correctly identifies beneficial and profitable ideas to pursue or harmful and unprofitable ideas that are not worth pursuing. Romer said he spends most of his time worrying about all the opportunities that are harmful and profitable, especially in the world of tech. Although he was originally enthusiastic about the potential in Silicon Valley, Romer now believes that it has spawned companies, like Google and Facebook, that are a “danger in terms of the social fabric.”

“The government has not been strong enough to stop firms doing things that are clearly harmful to the prospects for growth and the quality of life,” said Romer.