Sunday, March 2, 2014

Fairness, part 2

Hello again. Last time, we talked a little about what fairness might look like in the context of a competitive game's ratings. From that we stated two conditions that raise red flags for unfairness:

1) Small skill advantages leading to excessively large rewards;
2) Large skill advantages leading to excessively small rewards.

We then talked about someone in the position of, say, Bill Gates, where the reward seems to be massively larger than the skill difference between him and his peers would justify. That isn't to pick on Bill Gates, whom I have nothing against, nor I am suggesting any remedies for this situation quite yet; I'm just observing the situation as it first appears to us.

Today I'll give a hypothetical, very simplified example of the second condition: large skill advantages leading to very small rewards. With any number of caveats about the assumptions we're making with the labels, here are our four friends for today:

First we have Lousy Larry. Larry makes bad decisions almost all the time. He doesn't work hard, he's not motivated at all to get an education, he has little impulse control. His best hope is to find a situation where he can get into a rhythm with a low-level job well enough to get by and maybe build a little momentum or security and not screw himself over too hard. He's almost entirely dependent on luck and outside help for this.

Next, meet Mediocre Mike. Unlike Larry, Mike isn't a bum, not at all. The quality of his decisions and habits is a mediocre mix of good and bad. Two steps forward, two steps back. He can do all right at a job that doesn't ask him to lean in too hard, but sustaining much upward momentum is unlikely at best.

Then we have Good Greg. Greg makes good decisions most of the time; he's maybe in the 75th percentile for that. He works pretty hard, he stayed in school and got good grades, he doesn't crawl into the bottom of a whiskey bottle very often. He would make a fine employee or manager in most companies; he could start a business and have a reasonable chance of success. He couldn't go from a cardboard box to CEO in five years, but he's doing things mostly right.

Finally, we have Heroic Hal. Hal is the inspirational figure that appears in Reader's Digest profiles and seventh-grade reading standardized test passages. He has tons of motivation, discipline, vision, and perseverance. He's a winner. There are very few Heroic Hals out there (though many more might claim to be, but we'll get to that some other time). Even he could find himself overmatched if the circumstances were bad enough, but it would take a whole lot.


How these guys will fare depends an awful lot on the surrounding conditions for upward mobility; no mystery there. Let's say they're dealing with a recently introduced condition that sharply reduces the likelihood of movin' on up - it could be an economic downturn, it could be a change in government policy, whatever you like.

Such a trend would be very difficult to identify in our culture early on, I would say. The most easily visible effect would be that fewer Lousy Larrys get the sort of breaks they depend on. Larry desperately needs someone to take a chance on him, or else he would have no opportunity to prove that maybe he's not so lousy after all. And in this environment, those who could do that for Larry are much less willing to take that sort of risk. But we won't see it - indeed, Larry has always been invisible to us. He has no power and no credibility, as far as we know. He'd probably fail no matter what anyone does for him. We can always say he did this to himself and thus not feel bad about turning him away.

As the effects of the condition advance, we'll start to see more and more Mediocre Mikes in trouble next. In better times, Mike has honest work and a stable base on which to build a life if he doesn't make some catastrophic mistake. But he's pretty easy to outcompete, and a condition where upward mobility is more difficult means that competition is much increased. Worse yet, his margin for error shrinks - Mike makes some bad decisions, and now those can cost him a lot more. But how bad do we feel for Mike? We don't quite feel comfortable calling him a bum, because he's not one. But he makes enough mistakes that we can still say, well, you could have done much more. You could have worked harder, you could have kept your nose cleaner, you could have coasted less than you did. "Mediocrity" is a dirty word in our world, and we never allow it as an excuse, even though most of us are mediocre far more often than we'd ever admit. And so we can still comfortably deny what's happening, if we're the sort that feels better when we do that.

The condition marches on; upward mobility gets harder and harder, and as we've chosen not to see it so far, having little or no empathy for whom it hurts, we've done nothing to arrest it. We need a canary in the coal mine, and Good Greg is it. Greg followed the rules. He worked hard, kept his wits about him and kept his nose clean. His only sin is not being a superstar. And now lots of Good Gregs are found in jobs and situations that used to be the province of Mediocre Mikes. (And Greg has student loan debt that Mike doesn't have…) Can we really blame Greg if he wonders what the point of playing by the rules was? Maybe he would have been Good Greg in any case, but by having Greg at a lower rung of the ladder, both he and we lose out on a large part of the contributions his work and education could have provided us. But we wish him well. Though even then some might still point to Heroic Hal and tell Greg, see, you should have been like that guy. A consistent 10-6 isn't good enough; you have to win the Super Bowl or you're a loser. That stupid, poisonous idea isn't most of us, though, and by the time Good Gregs start scuffling too much, we might start identifying the problem as a problem.


Back to the second of the original statements: we raise red flags when we see large differences in competence given too-small rewards. And that's what we have here. Good Greg's decisions are consistently better than Mediocre Mike's, and a world better than Lousy Larry's. But in a condition where upward mobility is too hard to come by, what we see is a blurring of the distinctions between Greg and Mike, and between Mike and Larry. This has been true in most places throughout human history, which should tell us that it is the natural progression of things: without countermeasures, we have always and will always end up with few winners and many losers, and if you're a loser in that scheme, it matters less and less whether you were pretty good but not good enough or whether you were awful. It all tastes the same after a long enough time.

This hypothetical also assumes that we're living in a meritocracy, that it is proper or ennobling to conceive of people's life outcomes as a competitive game, and that people's categories of ability are fixed, all of which are dubious claims at best - but maybe we'll get to that next time.

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