Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Another defense of meritocracy

Scott Alexander has also noticed the now-ubiquitous bipartisan opposition to meritocracy that I have been documenting forever and has also come to its defense. He makes the important point that merit is not synonymous with wealth and success, and that when we say the best flutes should go to the best flute players (not his example, but he should consider it), we don't mean that great wealth and fame are necessarily attached to the best flutes. In fact, flute-playing is a good example precisely because it is a difficult art, requiring extensive cultivation and whose basis in talent is unevenly distributed in the population, but which nonetheless does not reward its masters with much besides recognition of their excellence in the art. The best flute players are still poor and obscure.

SSC reverses the flute equation in order to eliminate the suggestion of personal dessert implied by saying that the best flute players ought to have the best flutes given to them. What's really happening, he says, is that the best flute players are being assigned to play the best flutes because that's the distribution that benefits everyone most. That's fine for its limited purpose, but we should be careful not to treat flutes as though they precede men in order of priority, and men are mere instruments, created for the sake of playing flutes. Or that all things subject to meritocratic distribution are social goods. Yes, we all benefit when people most skilled at surgery are allowed to perform the operations. But if even the best flute-playing has no social benefit (which is pretty much true), justice requires that the best flutes still go to the best flute players.

SSC also sees that the biggest problem for opponents of meritocracy is that they have no plausible alternatives to it:
The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool, it’ll be impossible to advocate for it without giving three boring paragraphs worth of qualifiers that put everyone to sleep, and it’ll become that much harder to criticize cronyism or advocate for something different.
And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.
But his solution is too simple - in order to avoid confusing credentials with actual merit, "Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance." One problem seems to be this is pretty hard to test. Can anyone actually predict the market better than chance, in the long run, for reasons other than chance? How would you know if an 18 year-old or 22 year-old has really done that? They have no track record. Another problem is that for many of these sorts of desirable, high-paying jobs - entry-level investment banking, management consulting, journalism, academia - there would be many more people who pass a test of sufficient background skill or knowledge than any employer could hire. (At least at first, before people started specializing and training extensively to do well on these tests instead of the standardized tests we give high schoolers now.) But if the employer is committed to considering only performance on the entry test, then how can he turn away anyone who scores above the bar? These are thorny problems, and the reason that Goldman Sachs currently hires whoever does best at Harvard is precisely because they're allowing Harvard to answer them (and take the flack for it) for them.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Varieties of newspeak: I am wanting

There are these strange locutions that appear apparently out of nowhere in English usage, suddenly and ubiquitously, that are not quite wrong but still jarring and weird. A few years ago, it was the identity politics-based resurgence of "folks," which I found ominous at the time, and which in fact turned out to bode poorly for our politics.

What I hear all the time now, especially from women, is "I am wanting to X." What is this? It's not quite ungrammatical, but it does not clearly fit any grammatical English tense. Is it a present simple-turned-continuous? What happened to send the clear and direct simple present "I want to" out of fashion?

Granted, this deformed locution is probably more a result of grammatical misconceptions about what constitutes sophisticated speech than a subtle indicator of political change like "folks" was, but it seems weirder than the usual misconceptions, like when people discover that the word "whom" exists but assume it's just a more sophisticated synonym for "who." Or, what Alex says has become a problem in office-speak: people thinking that "myself" is a fancy synonym for "me," and instructing their colleagues to "contact Bob or myself with any questions." I can see how, not knowing much about grammar, you could make these errors. But both the simple present and the continuous present are such common tenses that even someone who was illiterate would be completely familiar with them, so what is the appeal of combining them into a new tense construction that conveys no new meaning?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Small town, lost bunny

Yesterday, as other people's newsfeeds were full of political angst and Nordstrom's sale picks, mine was full of this stuffed bunny. A girl left it behind at the bagel store, which posted it on its Facebook page, which in turn was shared by every local parents' group on social media. Even the local news picked up the story of the lost bagel store bunny. So there was effectively an AMBER alert out for a stuffed animal. It worked; the rabbit was repatriated the next day.

It's utopia out here, I'm telling you.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

On the fate of Nigel

Since Goomba was born, I've been so wrapped up in the mysteries of human development that I've basically forgotten that a bizarre, basically wild animal also lives in our house. But he does! When I do think of him, it's mostly in light of the danger he poses to Goomba, who is now actively chasing him around the living room shrieking, "NYE-NYE!!!" and cornering him into desperate places every day. He's been remarkably patient with her, and I think he's only swatted at her a couple times. (I think she's at an age now where she can learn better from experience not to hit the the cat than by verbal admonishment, so yes, I let this happen.) Each of these swats has caused her to become completely outraged and promptly march over to us and point to the mark he left and blame him. I guess if you don't have siblings, you can still learn to tattle on your pets at an early age.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Conversations with children

Goomba, aged 20 months

Me: Would you like some more lamb?
Goomba: Baaa.
Me: Ok, would you like some more baaa?
Goomba: Yes!

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Leonard, Illiberal Reformers

A lot of moralizing about how anti-individualist, socially-controlling, and eugenically-motivated the Progressives were (all of which I agree with, but reading the same indictments over and over doesn't make me agree more), but very interesting account of Progressive economic theories, which I didn't know existed.

For example, the theory underlying the minimum wage goes something like: wages are the cost of living for the worker and his family (Aside: isn't this also what Smith thought wages were? Leonard makes it sound like the family wage is a unique delusion of the Progressives.) Immigrants and women and various other "defectives" who are willing to live on less (in wretched squalor) bid down wages by entering the labor market and "accepting" a lower wage for the same work. Therefore, to keep wages sufficiently high for the workingman of good stock, we institute a minimum wage that is expressly designed to result in these defectives losing their jobs, since their work is not valuable enough to merit the minimum legislated wage. We thereby forcibly idle the degenerate workers and improve the lives (and reproductive potentials) of the good workers.

This is interesting because it not only recognizes what modern minimum wage proponents claim is not the case - that raising the minimum wage eliminates low-paid jobs - but takes this elimination to be the point, or at least half the point, of the policy. What is strange about it though is that you'd think that there would be massive opposition to this wage theory, not just by employers who don't want to lose workers or pay them more, but theoretically by anyone with a background in neoclassical economics (everyone?). Wouldn't they object that obviously no one "accepts" a lower wage due to their low cultural or racial standards when they could get a higher one just by asking for it? That the reason that wages go down in an industry when a lot of immigrants or women or anyone enters it is simply a matter of increased supply? Leonard does mention that John Bates Clark developed the marginal productivity theory of wages in this period (and was also a Progressive, maybe, that part is unclear), but this apparently posed no obstacle to the Progressive movement because no one believed him.