Zachary David Skaggs

Hi there! You've reached the blog of Zachary David Skaggs, a Los-Angeles-based former think-tanker, current med student, and longtime submission grappling enthusiast. Find me on facebook here or twitter. For blog posts related to health policy and my med school progress, check out the H Spot.

Here is me doing some unorthodox brazilian jiu jitsu at Atwater grappling. My buddies and I (here with Rodrigo Dillig) get together Wednesday nights and grapple (wrestling with submissions). BJJ is a ton of fun, it keeps your body limber and strong, and — especially after a good, hard session — calms the mind. Can’t say enough good things about it. Feel free to contact me if you’d ever like to check out the sport / try some free classes.

Should we award points in BJJ competition for duration of holding control positions?

There was once a time when the best brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners in the world were also the best over all fighters. BJJ hero Royce Gracie famously dominated “brawlers,” kickboxers, and wrestlers — many of whom outweighed him by 50+ pounds — in the first few UFC events in the mid-90s.

Shortly thereafter, however, fighters learned how to defend against those previously inscrutable submission attacks of brazilian jiu jitsu. BJJ practitioners stopped dominating, and then, not so long after that, were routinely dominated themselves by wrestlers who could control them on the floor but defend against their no-longer-new-fangled submission attacks. Strikers who could defend against submission attacks and knock you senseless in the meantime joined the fray next.

Ever since, BJJ has taken two separate directions. The pure BJJ specialists — who are versed in submissions but who shun striking and are comfortable “on bottom” in a fight — compete in jiu jitsu-only tournaments. When they venture into the UFC, they are routinely crushed. On the flip side, BJJ has essentially become integrated into the arsenal of every MMA fighter: everyone who fights in the UFC at a minimum can defend submissions, and most — whether they are primarily a wrestler or striker — can apply their share of submissions as well, even if they don’t call themselves a brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner.

It is to the pure BJJ folks that I address this essay:

I don’t think anyone wanted BJJ to evolve to a point where the best (pure) BJJ artists are essentially ineffective in general fighting. While there will always be at least some gap — even the best BJJ practitioners must learn striking from some other art — BJJ has evolved into a strange beast with many habits and tools that simply do not exist in regular fighting / MMA. Consider the “lapel guard,” currently being popularized by one of the brightest young stars in BJJ, Keenan Cornelius, which involves looping one’s opponent’s gi around your legs several times before ever even initiating clinching up with him. It’s an extremely inventive strategy, one that works amazingly in BJJ competition, but simply will not work on shirtless dudes in the UFC.

So the question, then, is how to make tournament BJJ more (if not perfectly) applicable to general fighting / MMA. How to make it such that the best brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners are also competitive in MMA, in the same manner that the best wrestlers and strikers today routinely are (after some additional training to round out their skills as well).

The first thing I would do is de-emphasize the gi. Many have made this argument before me and I will defer to them on this subject. But, the bottom line is, MMA practitioners do not wear a gi, and even a plain-clothes street fight — unless your opponent were wearing a tie or a leather jacket — wouldn’t allow you to perform most of the maneuvers modern-day gi BJJ asks you to perform.

In general, if you want to adjust the behavior of participants in a game, you should adjust the rules. Ideas for rule changes in BJJ tournaments to make them more like real fights abound. There is a large movement for “submission only” tournaments. I think this rule structure does avoid a lot of the problems of current point-based BJJ tournaments that award “advantages” for doing things that do not represent advantages at all, but they are also imperfect. Sometimes a fighter dominates another but can’t lock on that definitive submission. Should that match simply be a tie? (Incidentally, actually I think it’s OK to call such matches a tie; not every match needs a “winner,” but will save that for another day as well.)

One idea that I haven’t heard proposed that I think would work well would be for duration of control to matter. Currently if your opponent takes your back (or mounts you or puts you in side control), your opponent is awarded a few points, independent of if they control you for a few seconds or a few minutes. This is a major difference between a BJJ tournament and a UFC fight. In a UFC fight, if you gave up the mount for any length of time, you will probably be punched into oblivion. Same for giving up side or back control. The threat of being punched in these inferior positions means you can’t devote 100% of your energies to defending submissions. At a minimum, you would lose the round, and in your average three round fight, this is a big deal. What I often see in BJJ fighters in the UFC is that they are able to take dominant positions such as back control or threaten with submissions — things that would earn them points or “advantages” that would win them the match in BJJ tournaments — but they are unable to hang on to these positions enough to either win the round or knock out or submit their opponent in the UFC. Perhaps having to “hang on” to dominant positions in BJJ tournaments would translate into improved outcomes in UFC tournaments. It would encourage in BJJ practitioners the sort of stifling control that made Royce Gracie so formidable, and, for that matter, makes wrestlers so frequently dominant today.

Moreover, I think making duration of dominant control positions matter squares with who is really “winning.” That is to say, if you watch a BJJ match where Person A takes Person B’s back for most of the match, and, try as he might, is unable to finish, and — going for a final wild finish at the end — ends up getting swept and giving up his own back for a few seconds toward the end of the match, while this match would technically be a draw or even a win for Person B, I think it’s definitely the case that Person A dominated or “won.”

I think this rule change would also encourage BJJ practitioners to try to actively escape bad positions. Frequently BJJ folks are trapped beneath the weight of a wrestler but are not versed in escaping (at least, not from an opponent who is not trying to actively submit them but is only trying to control them). Having duration of being controlled matter would encourage the development of active defensive movement/sweeps on the part of BJJ practitioners.

Another benefit of this change is — I think — that it would actually lead to more submissions by BJJ practitioners in the UFC. A sad truth is that rarely are fights won by submission anymore, and even when they are, it is typically the cherry on top after a good clean shot to the head. A big part of this, as mentioned above, is that fighters of all stripes have learned how to defend submissions. But I think another part is that BJJ players themselves have begun to de-emphasize submissions. In BJJ tournaments that are often decided by an advantage or a sweep, why risk position to go for a submission? To be sure, it is extremely hard to submit someone who has 10+ years of experience exclusively defending submissions as a BJJ practitioner.

But you know who doesn’t know how to expertly defend submissions? Your average UFC fighter. Unfortunately, because BJJ players are only taking dominant position from which they could submit their opponents for flashes of time on these opponents, (I would argue) they are unable to sink them in. I would argue that if duration of dominant position in BJJ tournaments were emphasized, it would encourage BJJ fighters to learn how to stay on people’s backs for entire rounds, giving them ample time to submit their BJJ-naive UFC opponents. 

So, that’s my proposal: make it not only matter that you got your back taken, but make it matter how long you were in this inferior position. I think that this simple change would encourage tendencies in tournament BJJ that better correlate with success in fighting/MMA. These include: ability to control one’s opponent; increased amount of time available to submit one’s opponent; and better ability to escape from beneath dominating wrestlers. I also think duration of control squares with our own thoughts on who really “won” — all mounts were not created equal!

I should also mention that I think submission-only tournaments are a notable improvement to the existing points-based tournaments. I do think though that if we were going to award some type of points, I’d go with duration of control as the thing that matters most. What do you think?

A chance meeting with Nate Silver

The recent election and the once-again-prescient analysis of Nate Silver has me reflecting on a chance meeting I had with the statistician nostradamus many years ago. The interesting part of the story, IMO, is that Nate Silver was just about to make his big move in life, and said as much, though this is only clear in retrospect.

At the time I was obsessed with baseball and particularly “moneyball”-popularized statistical analysis of it. I used to read this website, Baseball Prospectus, in fact, which featured a young statistician who had developed an algorithm, “PECOTA” to predict the future performance of current baseball players.

I recall going to a Happy Hour-type of affair for fans of the site, where I remember having a long chat with, of all people, Nate Silver. I don’t actually remember what he looked like or much beyond the general “theme” of our conversation, I confess, but I definitely know it was him because, as mentioned, I knew I was talking to the “PECOTA” developer. Anyway, what’s funny is that Nate Silver offered me some unsolicited advice: at the time I couched it in my mind as sort of ho-hum standard advice, but it really reflected on his then-mindset and presaged what he was about to do.

Namely, he told me, a young college student, to avoid the standard cubicle-based existence and “pursue my dreams.” He reflected on his current work for a big 4 accounting firm or similar outfit as so much drudgery. His true passion, at the time, lay in predicting the performance of baseball players by perfecting this algorithm he had developed. Being driven by a passion made his work much more rewarding and inspired him to genuinely achieve in a way a 9-to-5 buttoned-up existence never could.

To add to Nate’s advice: one must not only find a passion but also find a passion that a customer base is interested in. When Nate’s passion (and talent) shifted from baseball to politics he was able to secure a massive audience and secure a wonderful niche. I imagine he finds his work both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding.

At the time I spoke with Nate, I was still trying to figure out how to secure good grades in my college coursework, so his advice wasn’t precisely targeted to me and I didn’t think much of it. It is much more relevant to me now—or more precisely, me a few years ago. 

Nate was at the time, I imagine, going through that difficult life stage that strikes many of us in our 20s—what should we do in life? And moreover, should we follow the orthodoxy of getting degrees and corporate-type jobs? Or, should we embark on our own vision, whether it be starting our own business or perhaps writing a screenplay. I see many of my friends grappling with these sorts of questions currently—Nate is certainly an n=1 example of pursuing one’s own path successfully. And, rightly or wrongly, I myself have decided to go down the other, more risk-averse, well-trodden road.

PS One thing my former colleague Matt Bandyk used to preach when he was small business reporter for US News and World Report (back when they employed journalists heh) is that if you’re gonna strike it out on your own, it’s good to “keep the dayjob” as long as possible. For those of you seeking to go out and found your own business/write the next great american novel/etc., perhaps a nice middle ground is to do what Nate Silver did. Keep your job at the accounting firm, develop something (in his case an algorithm) in (what remains of) your spare time, and only quit the former gig when the latter has serious legs……..

Nova, the coolest cat in LA

Nova, the coolest cat in LA

Congrats, Ariel!

ECC Teacher Wins Jewish Educator’s Leadership Award

Join us in congratulating Ariel Volterra, one of our Early Childhood Center N1 teachers, who was awarded the 20/20 Leadership Award this past weekend from the Jewish Educator’s Assembly. The JEA annually honors 20 Jewish Leaders in their 20s for their contributions and dedication to Jewish Education. Ariel was the only Early Childhood Educator nominated among these talented individuals, and was ultimately awarded the honor for her ongoing contributions to the Jewish community. She was a student at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, is a graduate of Milken Community High School, attended our camp for many years, and was a Religious School Art Teacher for several years, as well.  Surrounded by her N1 co-workers, her family, and our ECC administration, Ariel proudly represented Stephen S. Wise Temple Early Childhood Center. Mazal tov!

Don’t Forget about Social Security Reform

UPDATE 01/16/10: I won the essay contest!

While reducing health care costs is one way to reduce the staggering federal debt load, policymakers should not forget about Social Security reform. I said as much in a recent essay for FacingUp.org:

The United States faces an uncertain fiscal future. Experts agree that the federal government’s current spending levels are unsustainable. An economic recession, financial bailouts, and an expensive stimulus bill have combined to create a projected $1.75 trillion deficit for 2009 and trillion-plus dollar deficits for years to come.[1] Even had recent events never occurred, the benefits the federal government has promised future generations of Americans, primarily via Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, are projected to consume an ever-growing and unsustainable share of the federal budget moving forward.

In seeking to restrain skyrocketing public debt levels—currently $11.9 trillion and growing at the enormous rate of $1 trillion per year—the U.S. health care system has lately come into focus. There are efforts afoot to refashion U.S. health care , which currently consumes 15% of GDP, along the lines of other systems that spend sometimes half as much (Japan spends about 8% of GDP) but achieve comparable health outcomes in their populations. Assuming that the goal of cost-reduction is achieved by these efforts—a big assumption—health care reform is one way to significantly cut into the U.S. government debt load.

The other major way to tackle U.S. debt, and the focus of this essay, is through reform of the Social Security system. The single largest item in the federal budget—indeed, the largest government program in the world—is the U.S. Social Security system, consuming about 20% of the federal government’s budget in a given year. But in moving to modify Social Security, we must be careful where we cut. Social Security plays an important role in providing for the financial security of the elderly, with some estimates arguing that Social Security keeps roughly 40% of Americans age 65 or older above the poverty line.

Social Security came into existence in 1935 as a centerpiece of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its purpose was to provide pensions to retired individuals, modeled after public pension programs that nations such as Germany had already adopted. Social Security has been repeatedly expanded since its inception. In 1940, Social Security paid benefits totaling $35 million. Today, Social Security payments go to 51 million Americans at the cost of $650 billion per year.[3] This number is slated to rise exponentially as the Baby Boom generation enters retirement.

There have been various proposals to reduce future promised payments via Social Security. A debate during the presidency of George W. Bush centered on whether to institute a system of private accounts, by which younger workers could put a portion of their Social Security payments into an interest-accruing account that they personally would collect in old age. This contrasts with the current “pay-as-you-go” status quo in which Social Security payments to the retired are made on the basis of Social Security taxes taken from current workers. The proposal for private Social Security accounts, while it may have gained political traction, strikes me as a distraction when it comes to achieving fundamental cost-reduction for Social Security. The reform, by itself, does not actually promise to reduce promised payments via Social Security in the long-term, merely re-orient them via personal savings accounts. Moreover, in the short-term, the reform would require massive deficit spending and borrowing to finance, as younger workers move their money out of the system, leaving nothing by which to pay older retirees. Thus, the proposal seems politically unworkable and financially a wash, unless other reforms are also instituted.

Another proposal calls for raising the age at which Americans can claim Social Security benefits. Currently that age is 65, but while at the time of Social Security’s introduction this may have been the typical retirement age, today, people often work well beyond it. Raising the age at which people can collect Social Security benefits, while necessarily unjust to those who must wait longer than anticipated to collect Social Security benefits, strikes me as workable and a relatively pain-free way to reduce federal spending on Social Security. One problematic aspect, which is not a problem in the proposal I will delineate below, is that it would make it significantly difficult for the poor elderly between age 65 and whatever the retirement age were raised to.

Economist Tyler Cowen points out that Social Security consists of two components: a welfare component and a forced savings component.[4] That is to say, Social Security forces workers to put away some money from their current earnings to be (theoretically) repaid to them in their old age. This, the forced saving component, is something that could be performed voluntarily by the worker and need not be administered by government fiat. At the same time, Social Security is also a form of welfare. It is this latter function that is the most important function that Social Security provides, the one for which it was originally intended, and the one that needs to be protected in the process of any reform. For that reason, I argue for means-testing Social Security, or essentially, converting Social Security into a form of welfare for the poor elderly. Only those individuals living below the poverty line would be granted Social Security benefits under this regime. It should be noted that the elderly are in fact generally the richest Americans, with peak wealth by age being 63 in the United States.[5]

Converting Social Security into a system that acts purely as a welfare payment system for older individuals preserves the core function of Social Security while preserving America’s fiscal future. This proposal would significantly shrink benefits dealt out currently by Social Security as well as its future promised benefits. Moreover, it would do so in a manner that would not hurt the poorest and frailest among us. It would, however, represent a significant loss of potential wealth for the middle- and upper-class elderly, but, as noted, these represent some of the richest people in America. Note that this proposal could conceivably combined with other reasonable proposals such as raising the retirement age at which Social Security recipients begin receiving payments.

1. “1.75 Trillion Deficit Seen as Obama Unveils Budget Plan.” New York Times. February 26, 2009. Accessed Nov. 17, 2009 at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/27/us/politics/27web-budget.html.
2. Orr, D. (November - December, 2004). “Social Security isn’t broken: So why the rush to ‘fix ’ it?” In C. Sturr & R. Vasudevan (Eds.), 2007, Current economic issues. Boston: Economic Affairs Bureau.
3. “Social Security (United States).” Wikipedia. Accessed November 17, 2009 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Security_%28United_States%29#Expansi…
4. Cowen, Tyler. “Should we privatize Social Security?” September 30, 2004. Marginal Revolution. Accessed November 17, 2009 at http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2004/09/should_we_p…
5. Cauchon, Dennis. “Generation Gap? About $200,000.” May 24, 2007. USA Today. Accessed November 18, 2009 from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-05-20-cover-generation-wealth_

Prof. Seery’s Celebrity Rises

Word on the street is…my Pomona College undergraduate adviser Prof. Seery has been named the 2009 Sidney Hook Memorial Award winner. The award recognizes national distinction by a single scholar in “scholarship, undergraduate teaching and leadership in the cause of liberal arts education.”

Prof. Seery, who wrote the book on liberal arts education, certainly strikes me as a worthy recipient. And, while it’s not exactly his scholarly writing, let me also recommend Prof. Seery’s blog, which, while wrong on nearly every political issue, :) is very clever and well-written.

Update: Prof. Seery has been minted the “George Irving Thompson Memorial Professor of Government and Professor of Politics” at Pomona College. Sheesh, he’ll need a 4 x 6 business card for that title! And he has a pair of books on the way, too, just to rub it all in!