Rule of the Meek

I was trained as an economist and taught to respect vertical equity: The idea that someone who was better at something deserved more of the reward. The pitcher with good control on his 100-mph fastball should get more pay than the one who tops out at 92 and tends to throw wild. It’s only fair. The better pitcher helps the team win more. Winning more is what everyone wants, including the fans. The fans bring the revenue. Revenue is the lifeblood of any enterprise. A successful baseball team will be staffed by good players who are paid well.

To honor vertical equity is to assign the riches of the world according to merit. Doing so ensures that the enterprises where more material value is at stake will be staffed by the best people. It is the best way to create powerful, effective organizations. These are the entities that make us all so well off.

Rewarding merit was a cause of the Enlightenment: Topple the aristocracy; it had its money for no reason other than birth. Let the wealth flow to the most competent people.

Non-monetary goods are also assigned according to merit. The top professorships go to the scholar with the most publications. People pay most attention to the media outlet with the best writers, editors, and producers. Attention, prestige, influence: All are doled according to some standard of merit.

We live in a meritocracy. The leaders of our culture have scored the highest, attended the most prestigious schools, and networked with the best people.

I used to be confident that all this was appropriate. Now, I’m having doubts. What is “merit?” The merit required for any position in society is, effectively, being skilled at whatever it takes to get the position. This is not the same thing as merit in the position itself. These two are the same in many cases, such as baseball pitchers. To get the job of pitching, you have to be a good pitcher. They are different in other cases, though, and really important ones too. The Presidency goes not to the best president but to the person who is best at getting votes.

In theory, a merit-based system assures that the best people at a role are placed in the role. In practice, we don’t have that. We have a role-seeking merit system: The person placed in the role is the one who is best at seeking it. Our system rewards role-seeking, not role-competence.

They are strongly correlated, of course. There’s probably no greater correlation than that between role-competence and role-seeking competence. I mean, if we know someone’s competence at doing what it takes to get the role, we probably know as much as can be known about his competence at the role itself. There’s no doubt that any move away from this system would result in a decline of effectiveness and power among all enterprises.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad though. We are awfully rich right now, the richest humans who have ever lived. (I’m speaking in average terms here. Not everybody is rich. We could do a lot more to help poor people, who suffer today as much as they always do. But this is another conversation. I want to focus on our overall well-being. Average.) If we tweaked our systems of achievement perhaps we might grow slower but be a lot happier.

Aristocracy: Think about it. Goods in society go to family members based on inheritance. There’s nothing about those families that makes them any more or less deserving of the goods. They’re just lucky. People who don’t have the goods are just unlucky. We’ve been trained to think of this as a horrible injustice. But it does have a positive that might be more important than anyone realized, a positive involving basic happiness. If my poor lot in life is the result of bad luck, then I won’t automatically think of myself as a stupid loser. In a meritocracy, people who are not on the top are reminded every day why that is so: “You are not very good.” Those people either feel awful about themselves and their world, and give up, or they start assuming that the supposedly “smart” people are not so smart. Which leads to a general skepticism of scientists, which leads to not vaccinating your kids. Maybe its better if people say that the rich are just lucky, rather than just smarter.

Rule of the Meek: What if goods in society went to the nicest people? It could happen. Nobody likes working with jerks. What if “merit” came to be understood as being a pleasant colleague? Imagine a company with the reputation of having really nice co-workers. It would attract lots of nice co-workers. A self-confirming reputation. People there would be happier. Turnover goes down, enthusiasm for the enterprise stays high… Employing nice people is not a bad way to make an enterprise thrive. In a way, networking is a test of emotional intelligence. What if that test of niceness-merit became more heavily weighted than pure cognitive ability or drive? Right now, we have these standardized tests because we presume that there are some very sharp people sprinkled among the people who are not already part of the elite. The system wants to find those people and bring them into that elite level. But those tests measure cognition, not niceness. As a result a lot – a whooooole lot – of people at the highest levels of society are nasty and mean and no fun to be around (disclaimer: I’m not excluding myself from that, not at all. Becoming a nicer person has been a lifelong quest starting from way behind). Imagine a national standardized test of niceness. The elite could draw into itself the ones who are meek, kind, giving, forgiving, earnest, and loving.

As I built the game program at Indiana, I came up with this mantra as regards hiring: “We are looking for kind-hearted people with a servant attitude.” That has always been our first screener. Fame and accomplishment is secondary. The result is, I really like the people I work with. We are relaxed in each other’s company. It is a joy to go to work each day. And I think we are quite effective in our mission, which is to give our students the best possible launch into their lives. Our placement rate is high, students love us, we love them, we have a strong and supportive and giving community, and our games are getting better by light-years every year. Merit based on kindness and service is a thing; it makes for a pretty powerful enterprise.

Maybe the world just have the idea of “merit” all wrong. Suppose a tenure case comes up and the research record is terrible. But the person is really nice and the students love him. All of my training says, “deny tenure.” But in the back of my head a separate rationality urges, “grant tenure,” because niceness is more important than research, and nice people are awfully hard to find.

So how about it, world? How about Rule of the Meek?

 

Three Kings

When I was in college, I got help from three black men, at different times and in different places. Each time the help was merciful. It was more than I could pay for, more than I deserved.

On my first flight home from college, I didn’t understand how checked baggage works. I got off the first of two flights and instead of going to my connection gate, I went down to the baggage claim. I thought I had to get my bag there, and then check it in again for the second flight. Of course my bag never came. I missed the second flight. I went to a ticket agent to ask what to do. He could have told me that missing the second flight was my fault and that I had to pay a change fee. But he just looked out at the tarmac and wordlessly rebooked me on the next flight.

Later I developed a hobby of breaking into buildings late at night and going up as far as possible. From the roofs of Georgetown’s buildings, you can see the center of Washington: The monuments, the avenues, the Potomac. A beautiful sight; and I loved to sit on a roof at night and watch the city. One night I was making my way up the fire escape of the Jesuit Residence when a voice called me back down again. It was Campus Police. The officer took me down to the station. He sat me down and talked to me as he filled out a form. After a while, the officer told me that God loved me and that I would be alright. He gave me the form and sent me away. There was no follow-up from the police.

In Fall of 1984, the Detroit Tigers were in the World Series. After four games, the Tigers had a 3-1 lead and one more home game, Game 5. They could clinch at home. On the morning of Game 5, I walked out of my GRE test at Georgetown and directly into a cab, which took me to the airport for a flight home. I met my brother and some friends and he drove us down to a bar in the center city to watch. The Tigers won. It was raining. There was a riot. At first it was fun, but it started to get ugly. I didn’t want to go home, so I separated from my group. After awhile, though, it really was time to go. I had $15. I went to a public phone I couldn’t get through to any cab company. I saw a cab, though, and asked if he would take me back to the suburbs for $15. He let me in. As we were leaving on Woodward Avenue, he pointed to a group of young black men and said “They’re up to no good now.” The cabbie drove me all the way out for just $15.

I often think about these men and I’m grateful for what they did for me. Three kings, they set a model of mercy I’m still hoping to match.

Wile E. Coyote and the Computationally Simulated Roadrunner

After yet another colossal failure, Wile E. Coyote came up with his best idea yet: To research the Roadrunner. RR being notoriously hard to catch, Wiley knew he couldn’t study it directly. So he ordered a computational simulation package from Acme Computer. With it, he built an automaton and named it Runnerbot. Wiley carefully calibrated Runnerbot so that its behavior exactly mimicked the real roadrunner. He recreated all of his greatest hits: The coyote cannon, the fake wall, the explosive bird seed. He re-ran each catastrophe again and again, so as to program Runnerbot to destroy him exactly as the real Roadrunner had done.

2010.04-roadrunner

Four years and $5 million later, Runnerbot was finally finished. Wiley began to study it, searching for clues about the best way to capture the real roadrunner. Sure enough, a pattern of vulnerability began to emerge. It was this. At the end of every disaster, as Wiley sat smoldering on the ground, Roadrunner inevitably dashed up, went “beep-beep,” and tore off again. This was it! A regularity! An actionable insight from a computational social simulation!

 

Wiley immediately set to work. He built a bomb and ordered from Acme Baby Goods, Inc. a baby monitor. Wiley modified the baby monitor so that the words ‘beep-beep’ activated it. When activated, the monitor sent a signal to the fuse of the bomb, which then lit, leading shortly thereafter to a massive explosion. Excellent! Wiley strapped this bomb with its monitor to his stomach and hid it with a hair shirt. Finally, the crafty coyote built a rockfall trap above the road with the triggering mechanism just downhill from the rocks. He put a pile of bird seed in the road and crept behind the rocks to wait.

 

cd2cb03321bcb39d7dd8e38a9fc150e5.jpgSoon enough the Roadrunner zoomed up and came to a screeching halt at the birdseed. As he happily pecked away, Wiley pretended to have trouble triggering the rockfall trap. He came grumbling around to the front of the rockpile and pulled the trigger. The rocks began to fall on him! Madly, he ran down to the road but – too slow! – the rocks crushed him anyway. His torn, crumpled body came to rest in the roadrunner’s shadow. A disaster. As expected.

 

But the battered canine was overjoyed. “This is it!” he thought. “Roadrunner will say beep-beep and try to run off. But his song will trigger the bomb strapped to my stomach, and BOOM! Roadrunner roadkill!”

The Roadrunner, however, did no such thing. He looked at Wiley and noticed his bulging stomach. Responding creatively to the data, Roadrunner said, “You finally figured out how to eat. That means our story is done. I can leave you alone now.” And he sped cheerfully away, never to be seen in those parts again.

Wiley was astonished. How had he gone so wrong? How could his inferences from Runnerbot be so inaccurate? He looked to the skies and moaned, “But … but … the Roadrunner always says beep-beep!” And with that, a sizzling sound was to be heard from around the poor lad’s midriff. Seconds later: KABOOM!

The End

The Stigma Game

Back in the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about stigma. He identified three categories (behavioral, physical, and group) and analyzed how stigma happens.

That decade was the start of a cultural shift away from stigma, and we live now in a time where stigmatizing others is considered rude. Actually, recently it has gone past that. Shaming another person for behavior, body, or buddies can get a person yelled at, fired, or even beaten up. Stigmatizing behavior is the only behavior stigmatized without regret any more, it seems.

It is a good thing. Nobody likes to be bullied, and our world is better when innocent differences and quirks are let alone. And yet, in reflecting on a stigma-free society, it has occurred to me that in losing stigma we are losing a social tool that does have its values.

What made me hesitate was a consideration of the young and the old and the harsh lessons of life. Say you are an old person who has learned said lessons. If you are a nice person, you might want to communicate them to younger people, so they don’t do the stupid things you did. However, simply saying things to people rarely works. “Don’t drink too much beer” results in ‘Yeah, old man, I get it. I’ll keep it down [to 16 or 20 hahahah]…” You can’t tell other people what to do.

Shame works, though. If you have a culture where drinking too much is shamed and stigmatized, you’ll have less drinking. Lots of game theory experiments show that you can get people to be nice to the group if you let group members punish them for being a jerk. If you let players punish others, everyone can be made to conform to behaviors that the group likes. If you let old people punish young people for drinking too much, through stigma or shame or something, you’d definitely have less binge drinking.

These thoughts led me to wonder, what if we compared a world where binge drinking is heavily stigmatized to a different world where “you be you” is the reigning response to it. Benefits and costs, of course, as always. In the YBY world, young people binge drink a lot, and a bunch of them learn later that it was a mistake. They learn the harsh lessons of life in the School of Hard Knocks, as they say. However, nobody has to deal with being ashamed of themselves. In the shame-the-drunk world, in contrast, lots of innocent young drinkers have to deal with bad attitudes from old people. Some drinkers on the road to serious problems respond to the stigma, control their drinking, and avoid the School of Hard Knocks. Some others, though, get a huge thrill from making the old people mad. They drink just to be different.

This gets into the weird dynamic of social rebellion. Everybody wants to be different, to show their individuality, especially when they are young. Young people will rebel against the world, no matter what the world is like. But in a YBY world, nobody cares what a rebel does. It doesn’t bother anybody. You can’t rebel against a system if the system says “Do whatever you want, we don’t care.” In that kind of world, a rebel has to do things that are super crazy to stand out as a rebel. In the drinking example, you have to nearly kill yourself with alcohol in order to stand out from the masses of “normally” binging people. But in a world where boozing is stigmatized, you’re a rebel if you drink more than a few beers. Well, that’s a safer rebellion. Stigma makes rebellion safer.

After thinking about all that, I wondered whether it might make sense to bring back stigma about a few things. The cost would be, some innocent people would be shamed for no good reason. And, old people would have to be sticking their noses more into the affairs of the young. Chaperoning and stuff. (I’m at a college campus, so I’m imagining a rule where any big party has to have two faculty there. Two SOBER faculty.) But the benefit would be, fewer people who learn things the hard way, and, young people could rebel without taking their lives into their hands.