Blogger Scott Alexander repurposed an Allen Ginsberg poem in order to describe the horrifying, out of control race to the bottom that occurs when people are faced with competing incentives that require them to sacrifice their own self-interest for the good of the entire system.
Alexander cites examples ranging from government corruption, overexploitation of natural resources, and the “publish or perish” environment of academia.
“The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: ‘Moloch.’ It’s powerful not because it’s correct — nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything — but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.”
And what is Moloch? Wikipedia summarizes the Moloch mythology as a “Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.”
Ginsberg — and by extension Alexander — turn Moloch into an allegorical presence personifying the human tendency to do what is expedient in the short term at the cost of long-term stability. Just about every game theoretical disaster of perverse incentives falls under Moloch’s rule. Could there be a more apt metaphor than a god of child sacrifice?
COVID-19 — and its associated regulations — has exposed the entire fitness industry to the ravages of Moloch.
It’s no secret I am taking COVID-19 seriously and have concerns about the broader implications of failing to get this disease under control.
As much as I would love to operate my brick and mortar fitness business without restrictions, I am concerned the lack of coordination surrounding restrictions makes it more likely that all brick and mortar fitness businesses will suffer — both from lack of consumer confidence in returning to the gym as well as increasingly stringent regulations meant to curb bad actors.
My gym, South Loop Strength & Conditioning, is located in downtown Chicago, which has relatively strict COVID-19 related regulations.
All members and staff must wear masks in the gym — yes, even while training.
Classes are capped at 10 people, and we must maintain six feet of social distancing.
We are taking the guidelines seriously, which means not just posting a page on a website and buying bushels of sanitary wipes, but also constantly giving members feedback about mask usage and class sign-up protocols.
However, spending a bit of time on social media shows that a lot of gyms in our area are not really following the guidelines at all.
Stories and posts abound with members training without masks, not social distancing and clearly going over capacity restrictions.
One can give the benefit of the doubt and assume people aren’t necessarily keeping up with the constantly changing guidelines or searching for the latest version of the fitness business regulations PDF on a confusing government website.
Or is it Moloch at play?
Some people are going to take the virus more seriously and are potentially going to quit gyms that are not following guidelines, and instead join gyms that are being more careful.
Some are going to bristle at guidelines and are going to join gyms that allow them more freedom and turn a blind eye to rules violations.
After a period of volatility, a business owner can expect that an equilibrium will be reached where people join gyms that more closely align with their preferred handling of the pandemic.
Skeptics and those who don’t want to be told what to do join gyms that are lax on guidelines.
Those who are more concerned join gyms that are strict.
However, in the current environment — with cases rising in many areas and uncertainty still in the air — the “concerned” population is more likely to stay home.
What about people who are flippant and think COVID is a hoax? They are much more likely to be coming in to gyms.
So, fitness business owners are likely seeing an unrepresentative sample of people in terms of their concern with regulations.
Even though a fitness business may stand to gain the future business of members who appreciate them handling the pandemic with appropriate caution, this reward to the business is potentially weeks if not months down the line.
The incentives for each individual gym, then, to make it through the tough times and generate as much revenue in the short term as possible is to be lax with regulations in order to sign up more of the incoming members who are less concerned than normal with regulations.
Through this laxity, gyms then increase the likelihood not just that they will spread COVID-19 through their membership base, but their municipality will view gyms as non-compliant, high risk businesses.
We’ve seen our city enforce more and more stringent regulations on bars based upon lack of compliance, and I would not be surprised a similar dynamic hit the fitness industry.