Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5b

Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby begins with the observation, "‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.‘ Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’" But most rich and successful people don’t heed that advice. As E. B. White said, 'Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self- made men.' I saw a book titled ‘If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?’ The immediate response that occurred to me was, ‘If you are so rich, why aren’t you smart?’

The thought patterns of humans living their day-to-day existence are continually affected by what goes on around them, and the consequent actions they take are continually affecting whatever is around them. A common rhetoric these days among the privileged is the myth of meritocracy. It is the idea that those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them. Successful people don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. The economist Paul Samuelson once said, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.”

How important is luck? People who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hardworking. But, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much. In recent years, social scientists have discovered that chance events play a much larger role in important life outcomes than most people once imagined. When successful people are oblivious to their own advantages they are often similarly oblivious to other people’s disadvantages. The result is a lack of empathy toward those who are struggling making them reluctant to support the kinds of public investments without which everyone becomes less likely to succeed.

For Darwin it was impossible to reconcile the cruelty of nature with a loving God. Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene doesn’t present a cheery view of nature either with its focus on the instrumental role genes play in the evolution of life. Are you counting on nature to make the world a better place? It is impossible, they thought. The problem here is with pushing the analogy between nature, genes and cultural elements too far. Folk ideas of Darwinian evolution and The Selfish Gene have given the idea of meritocracy the status of a natural law. So much so that Margaret Thatcher once said that poverty is a ‘personality defect’. 

The term meritocracy was coined in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy.  He argued that encouraging successful people to self-aggrandizingly attribute their success solely to their own efforts and abilities would actually make things worse, on balance. In a 2001 article, he noted that although it makes good sense to appoint people to jobs on their merit, “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

Some think success is all about “choices” and “personal responsibility.” Yes, those are real, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Luck acts in subtle ways, causing many of those same people to resist explanations that invoke luck. Your genes and your environment largely determine how smart you are.  How does it make sense for you to claim moral credit for them? You didn’t choose your parents, nor did you have much control over the environment in which you were raised. 

The birth order among siblings, which is as close to a pure chance result as any we can imagine, often plays a decisive role. There is also the scientific finding that your development depends on your grandmother's nutrition. And, of course, plenty of accidents determine where you have reached in life. People with a lot of talent and an inclination to work hard are extremely fortunate. As George Elliot writes in Middlemarch, ‘. . .  chance has an empire which reduces choice to a fool's illusion’.

Those who insist that luck played no role in their own success are almost surely claiming more than their due. Meritocracy would require equality in conditions to access work or career which simply does not exist. Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage. In 'What About Me?',  Paul Verhaeghe writes, 'The principle of a capitalist meritocracy founders on the inheritance of wealth: those who inherit capital stay at the top of the ladder; those who inherit debt remain at the bottom.' 

There are traces of meritocratic principles in most philosophical systems. What all these traditional systems have in common, though, is the notion that the merit relevant to governing include moral and civic virtue. For the past few decades, new technologies and market institutions have been providing growing leverage for the talents of the ablest individuals. This has resulted in the spread and intensification of what the economists Philip Cook and Robert Frank have called winner-take-all markets. This means that we are looking at a future in which chance events will become still more important. 

The meritocratic ideal is emphasised becase we tend to overestimate the effect of a brilliant individual on a team's success, and to underestimate the importance of the collective effort. The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility, sentiments that enable us to care for the common good. Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality. 

Emphasing the importance of luck isn’t the same as saying that most winners win only because they’re lucky. In highly competitive arenas, most would not have even been realistic contenders had they not been both extremely able and hardworking. Society as a whole can mould those environments in significant ways. We are thus the lucky beneficiaries of decades of investment by those who came before us. In a speech to Princeton graduates in 2012, Michael Lewis says:

In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

In a social context, the consequences are worrying. The middle class is disappearing, making way for a small group at the top and a large underclass at the bottom. The top group looks down on the underclass, believing that the latter only has itself to blame if it ends up in the gutter. Its ‘fault’ lies in a lack of effort and talent. But the underclass feel powerless to remedy their situation. It doesn’t take much for feelings of humiliation and despair to be transformed into violence.

Just as in the 19th century, people conveniently tend to forget the important role that pure chance plays, as well as the social effects of ethnicity, caste, class, age, ill-health, adversity, and gender. A paper reality is being created that has less and less to do with actual reality. The reward structure common in entertainment and sports - where thousands compete for a handful of big prizes at the top - has now become common in other sectors of the economy. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5a

"In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And, if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." – Warren Buffett

Brainy people can sustain an astonishing degree of emotional and cognitive detachment from reality as shown in, for example,  Empire of Pain. The political and business elite, whether capitalist or communist, has a fierce vested interest in all of us swallowing their stories, even better if it’s supposedly confirmed by ‘science’ and ‘data’. This makes it important to be suspicious of statistics. The same data can be used to support very different views. The main illusion produced by all these figures is that they represent ‘reality’. In the majority of cases, however, they are creating a certain image of reality. 

Darwin and Dawkins seem to have little connection with us as individuals. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous illusion. Take the shocking example of the Enron approach to personnel policy. By all accounts (including his own) Jeff Skilling, its CEO, was a very clever guy, even brilliant. “I am fucking smart,” he told an admissions officer at Harvard Business School. When somebody talks like that, you can be quite sure he will do some dumb things. It was Skilling’s vision and management philosophy that turned what could have been a simple bankruptcy into an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption. 

According to a Businessweek interview, “there was never any question who was in charge. It was Jeff.” His favorite book? The Selfish Gene. (Apparently, Dawkins was horrified to learn that this book inspired Skilling.) Officially, the system that Skilling imposed on Enron was known as the PRC, or Performance Review Committee. But the employees called it “Rank and Yank.” Every year Skilling recruited hundreds of new MBAs from the best business schools, and then fired those whose performance ranked in the lowest 10 percent. Top performers, on the other hand, were lavishly rewarded. 

Skilling thought that the system was great. He told one reporter, “The performance evaluation was the most important thing for forging a new strategy and culture at Enron — it is the glue that holds the company together.” Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. Enron “was as competitive internally as it was externally.” Traders who needed to go to the bathroom shut down and locked their computers because they were afraid that a colleague (in other words, a competitor) sitting at the next desk, would steal their ideas. 

For all his smartness, Skilling did not realize that humans actually have a natural inclination to work for the mutual benefit of an organization. People like to cooperate and collaborate, and they often work more productively when they have shared goals. Take all of that away and you create a company that will destroy itself. Employees began to focus solely on their own performance at the expense of the firm's overall performance and Enron became a miserable place to work. 

The individual performances of its staff members were continually monitored and contrasted. On the basis of the results, one-fifth of its employees were sacked each year, but not before they had first been publicly humiliated by having their name, photo, and failure posted on the company website. It wasn’t long before total paranoia reigned and almost everyone was falsifying their figures. Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate — not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.

But that failure is not the end of the story. Although the system that Skilling set up at Enron was an extreme example, the Enron model is still in wide use. This Rank-and-Yank scheme has become general practice at American companies, including such behemoths as Microsoft and General Electric (where it was pioneered by Jack Welch). Rank and yank can go by a few different names - Set distribution, forced ranking, vitality curve, and rank and yank are all alternative ways of saying the same thing - ranking employees by performance and getting rid of the ones at the bottom.

The belief in the brilliant individual, and the corresponding disparagement of team effort underpins the Rank-and-Yank system. According to a 2012 estimate, 60 percent of Fortune 500 firms use what is essentially the Rank-and- Yank system (although giving it more politically correct names). The fall of Enron was just a warning signal. One wonders, in how many other companies has internal cooperation been undermined to the point where they are about to become new Enron's?

HR managers at multinationals are expected to apply the 20/70/10 rule. Twenty out of every hundred employees are the high flyers, seventy provide the critical mass, and ten should be given the boot, even if sufficient profit and growth has been achieved. Googling the search terms ‘Rank and Yank’ and ‘20/70/10 rule’ throws up hundreds of hits of company documents praising this approach, invariably referring to Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’. 

The Selfish Gene is, in many ways, a brilliant book. Yet it fails utterly to explain one thing: the evolution of cooperation in human beings. The main idea of The Selfish Gene readily lends itself to abuse by the 'best and brightest' of the world. Selfish people are naturally attracted to theories that say that the human is a selfish beast, that’s the way things are. And I, being the smartest guy around, always knows the best. They find such theories liberating, giving them carte blanche to be selfish and greedy and feel good about it. Peter Turchin says in Ultrasociety:

I am reasonably certain that Richard Dawkins is, and George Williams and Herbert Spencer were, decent human beings, at least to a fair approximation. It is, at any rate, hard to imagine them perpetrating corporate fraud on the massive scale of Jeff Skilling. Nevertheless, their flawed understanding of human nature not only gave them pessimistic views of our capacity for morality, altruism, and cooperation. Worse still, policy prescriptions on how to increase cooperation, trust, and social justice will not achieve the desired results so long as they rest on these views.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 4d

“Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis. And the sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice.“ says Yuval Noah Harari. Many people are mesmerized by technology and think that there is a technological solution to everything. 'Designing better sapiens' is not just a matter of tinkering with the genes. The environment in which our genes are acting makes all the difference to how we turn out. 

Many people’s understanding of the relation between genes and characters is based on the tiny minority of monogenic diseases. The popular view is that the person you see is largely the sum of the effects of his or her genes plus a little social-educational gloss. For the foreseeable future, predicting what a collection of interacting genes will produce in a certain set of circumstances is not going to be possible. Very often a change in a single gene does not have a consistent effect on the trait that it influences. 

For example, low activity of the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is linked to aggressive behavior and violent offenses. But not everyone with low MAO-A activity is violent, nor is everyone with high MAO-A activity nonviolent. People who grow up in extremely abusive environments often become aggressive or violent, no matter what their genes. Having high MAO-A activity can protect you from this fate, but it is not a given. On the contrary, when children are raised in loving and supportive environments, even those with low MAO-A activity very often thrive.

Constand and Abraham Viljoen were two identical twin brothers who ended up on opposing sides of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Born on 28 October 1933, they were inseparable as boys.  The brothers attended the same schools and were in the same classes. They listened to the same teachers and the same propaganda about the superiority of the white race. In 1951, when Abraham decided to study theology, Constand opted for a career in the army. 

Army life suited Constand, and it became like a second family. While Abraham pored over his books and befriended students from all over the world,  Constand jumped out of helicopters and fought in wars. Year by year, the brothers drifted further apart. Abraham began to realize that the apartheid he’d grown up with was a criminal system and contradicted everything the Bible taught. When he returned after years of studying abroad, many South Africans considered Abraham a deserter. Constand, meanwhile, grew to be one of South Africa’s most beloved soldiers. At the pinnacle of his career, he became chief of the South African Defense Force. In time, the Viljoen brothers stopped speaking altogether. 

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, became a free man. Finally, there was hope for peace and reconciliation between black and white South Africans. Four years later, on 26 April 1994, the first elections were held for all South Africans. Two weeks later, on 10 May, Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president. What is less well known is that the inauguration almost did not happen. In the four years between Mandela’s release and his election as president, the country came to the brink of civil war. 

Constand became the leader of a new coalition calling itself the Afrikaner Volksfront. This group consisted of armed Africaners who were fearful of losing their privileges if Mandela won and was mobilising for war. Constand’s brother Abraham felt a deep sense of foreboding and realized that he needed to act. He knew that he was the only person in the whole of SA who could change his brother’s mind even though they had not talked for 40 years. 

He persuaded Constand to meet Mandela and the meeting took place in Johannesburg on 12 August 1993. Each time Constand shook Mandela’s hand, his admiration grew for the man he once considered a terrorist. That first meeting opened four months of secret talks between Constand and Mandela which few history books mention today. Yet this was a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa. In the end, the former general was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.  

The story of the Viljoen brothers is a textbook case of two people with same genes but exposed to different environments resulting in totally different characters. Virtually every behavioral effect of genes concerns the average of what’s being measured. It is possible to make statistical predictions at the level of groups but not about particular individuals within that group. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y.

It is fallacious to think of ourselves as merely the product of genes we inherited from our parents and see the future as nothing more than carrying those genes forward. It leads us to overvalue our ambiguous knowledge of how genes work and disregard other factors that shape our lives, factors that could be reshaped to improve the world around. Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst:

 If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would be “It’s complicated.” Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else. Scientists keep saying, “We used to think X, but now we realize that . . .” Fixing one thing often messes up ten more, as the law of unintended consequences reigns. On any big, important issue it seems like 51 percent of the scientific studies conclude one thing, and 49 percent conclude the opposite. . .