The return of Commballnomics: drinks, DPs and other dilemmas


Tom Crowley and Feliks Zemdegs


August 24th, 2016

Forget your hair. Forget your outfit. All the Commball prep you need to think about is right here. ESSA’s Commballnomics is back for another year.

ESSA’s Commball prep last year was slightly unusual. Forget the haircuts or the wardrobe shopping; we cracked out our calculators and our matrices and went out in search of hidden, ball-themed economic case studies. Yeah, we’re weird.

One year on, it seems we still haven’t figured out how normal people have fun. So, back by popular (yeah right) demand: Commballnomics! This year, Tom revisits the infamous early-morning ticket lineup and also tackles the inevitable post-ball DP changing spree. Meanwhile, Feliks Zemdegs tries to ‘rationally’ decide on optimal drink consumption.


Nice guys line up last: the jaffy’s dilemma
Tom Crowley

Words fail to express my sheer, unbridled euphoria when I discovered after first year, thanks to ESSA, I would not have to line up for my Commball ticket. I had been saved. Never again would I join the march of the puffer-jacket-clad penguins at 4:30 on a Thursday morning. Never again would I brace the elements armed with nothing but a partially-broken umbrella. Never again would I endure the slings and arrows of jeering passersby as, mocha-clad, they gleefully stroll past en route to their heated lecture theatres.

The Commball lineup is notorious, and rightly so. Desperation is rife amongst prospective ball-goers, with camping out the night before not unheard of. In 2014, when I lined up, hoping to enforce some fairness/decorum/sanity, CSS decided to lay down the law., They threatened that anyone arriving before 5am would be escorted from the premises by security.

Hah. Yeah, right. My friend and I weren’t so easily fooled, so we wound our alarms back and made our way in to join the line at 4:30. Sure enough, with no security guards in sight, the line was filling fast. We sprinted to the back and settled in for the morning. By 4:50, new arrivals were being turned away: the tickets were already sold out.

As I watched those who had done the right thing trudge back to their cars, I almost felt bad for them. Almost.

Why did it have to be this way? Wouldn’t everyone be better off if we just agreed to show up later? Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation talking, but that sounded like a good idea to me. Why should everyone ruin their days by entering into an alarms race (get it)?

It’s not hard, of course, to see why this has little chance of success. Suppose everyone does agree to a leisurely 10am start. If I could assume that everyone else was going to honour the arrangement, I’d be all smiles. If I timed it right, I could get my ticket and my sleep in all in one. I’m a master crowd navigator, so I’d back myself to get to the front of the line if everyone arrived at the same time.

But what if someone doesn’t honour the agreement? After all, there’s nothing to compel them. What’s stopping someone from getting to South Lawn at, say, 9:30? Or 9:00, just to be on the safe side? CSS could try using the security guard threat again, but I’ve seen firsthand how easy it is to call that bluff. It seems, then, that to get my ticket I’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers. If enough people deviate from the arrangement, I’ll miss out.

Unless, that is, I join the dark side. If I’m so sure I can’t beat the cheats, why not join them? Sure, I’d like a sleep in, and sure, I’d like a fair process as well. But it’s not so comfortable up on your high horse when you’re faced with the prospect of missing out altogether.

The problem? There are plenty of others going through the very same thought process. Just as I go early because I’m afraid they will, they go early because they’re afraid I will. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle of treachery. And there’s no reason to think it’ll stop at 9:00, either. A race to the bottom, it seems, is inevitable. Time to switch the alarm on, then.

We have a name for this situation in economics: it’s called the prisoners’ dilemma. Doing the right thing would be great if everyone else did it too, but it’s better to do the wrong thing than to be the only one doing the right thing. Where prisoners’ dilemmas are concerned, nice guys really do finish last.


To bev or not to bev: optimising consumption at the open bar.
Feliks Zemdegs


So you’ve made it through pres, taken your photo with the elephant on the pier, and you’ve finally made it: you’re inside the one and only Peninsula. You’ve marked your territory at the table,  scouted out the location of the silent disco (you’ll forget it in about 45 minutes) and decided which of the two mains you’re going to try to avoid (definitely the salmon). You’re almost ready to go. There’s only one thing left: head to the bar. But how much should you drink tonight?

Well, you’re an economist, remember, so when you’re deciding on the optimal consumption level of a good (bevs), you’ve got to equate the marginal benefit with the marginal cost of consumption. At what point does the cost of downing your next champagne sunrise outweigh the benefits or utility derived from its consumption?

Well, firstly, the ‘cost’ isn’t what it would normally be. Given that you’ve already paid a fixed entrance fee, each additional drink comes at no monetary cost. That is, the marginal cost is zero dollars. And of course, there are plenty of marginal benefits, like the warm post-beer glow on a cold night in Docklands, or the pride of successfully chugging in response to peer pressure.*

Do you then assume that you should consume as much as possible, simply because the drinks are free? Maybe you’ve tested this strategy before. If so, you will probably have found that it does not yield maximum utility. If you’re like me, you would have woken up the next morning to check your maths and figured out the flawed reasoning in your calculations (after a litre of water and some painkillers).

‘Of course!’, you might have shouted between gulps of water. I’ve only considered the dollar cost ($0) of each drink, whereas the true marginal cost must encapsulate all other costs associated with consumption!

Alcohol, after all, is widely considered to be a demerit good – one which can both negatively affect the consumer (humiliation and headaches, not to mention brain damage), and lead to negative externalities (munting on your friend, declaring love to your Uber driver, etc). If you’re very lucky, there might be some positive externalities too, but in all likelihood probably not. The point is that in failing to consider the many and various costs associated with excessive alcohol consumption (health, reputational, romantic), you drank in the zone where the marginal cost of consumption far exceeds the marginal benefit – the real reason your night (and your Uber rating) was ruined.

*Obvs drink responsibly



Time for a new DP: Virtue signalling and the True Meaning of Commball

Ok, time for some real talk. Sure, the ball was fun. Your pokey Docklands apartment-for-the-night might have had a view of a carpark, but you still managed to convince yourself you were a high-roller. You remembered every word to Wonderwall when it came on at the after party, vindicating all the time you spent practising with Youtube videos. You might have skipped the main course, but you finished off the night with a 4am Macca’s run and filled up on nuggets, food of the gods.

But all of that is secondary. The real reason you lined up early and forked out for a ticket has nothing to do with the night itself at all. The main event is still to come: it’s time for a new DP.

Admit it, you’ve been waiting for this for months. Your old DP has gone stale. You’re sick of looking at it. But you can’t just replace it with anything! The last one cracked a solid three-figure like count; you’ve got a reputation to uphold! Throw some random selfie up there and you might get… like… 70 likes! The horror!

No, there’s only one thing that will do: a ball shot. You just know your friends are going to go wild for another filtered photo of you looking glam af on a pier/balcony. You’ve even thought of a super original caption! You just know nobody else will have thought of ‘#ballin’. You’re a veritable literary genius.

But what’s actually going on here? Why does everybody pour so much energy into profile pictures? It certainly has nothing to do with the basic functionality of a profile picture: to identify you to your friends. Any old #nofilter snap would have fulfilled that requirement.

No, there seems to be something more at stake when you upload your latest picture. Although you know it shouldn’t really matter, and you’re probably taking it way too seriously, you can’t help but think that your ‘personal brand’ is at stake, whatever that means. You know you shouldn’t care what other people think, but you do, and you worry what people will think of you if your Facebook profile projects an undesirable image. Don’t worry; so do I (watch this space for my own #ballin DP).

As usual, economists have some jargon for this: virtue signalling. Brands do it all the time. In the same way that an ad is all about projecting an image of a product, the aesthetics of your profile project a carefully-cultivated image of you. Your Facebook profile is your ad. Just like a brand, you might be interested in projecting an image of yourself as successful, attractive or accomplished.

Of course, just like brands dress up their products in pursuit of this (think of crisp ingredients falling in slow-motion in burger ads), so do you (yep, your profile is the human equivalent of cascading lettuce and sizzling burger patties). Your profile picture may not be what you look like all the time – the same is true of the burgers – but that’s not the point. You’re projecting a filtered, optimised image of you for broader consumption.

Sound like every bad narcissistic millennial stereotype ever? Maybe it is, but people have worked hard to project successful images of themselves long before the dawn of Facebook. It’s the same logic behind the phrase ‘dress for success’.

But here’s the thing: the whole point of virtue signalling is to create the impression of value, whether not the value exists. In other words, of course, your like tally doesn’t equal your self-worth.


But you knew that, and this isn’t a self-help article. There’s a more interesting point here. Like tallies on Facebook are fairly meaningless. When brands virtue signal, they’re targeting prices, in one way or another. An image of prestige or superiority can command a higher price, even – and this is the key – if that image has no basis in reality. This should be a sobering reminder not to take market prices too seriously. Particularly zealous neoliberal economic ideologues talk of the market price as the perfect embodiment of all available information, and hence reflective of the true value of the object in question. It’s not, of course, and not just because of virtue signalling; all sorts of cognitive biases and random effects can also contribute to the vagaries of market prices. But it’s easy to forget this complexity, and to put too much stock in a market pricing mechanism that, although highly useful, is not infallible.

What does all that have to do with Commball? I forget. Think I need a drink.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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