Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

ANOTHER GOLDEN OLDIE

A regular reader of this blog emailed me with a link to a Frank Bruni Op Ed column that I had in fact already read.  In this column, provocatively titled "Aristotle's Wrongful Death," Bruni bemoans the recent trend of downsizing or cancelling liberal arts majors at colleges in favor of job-related training.  Bruni breaks a lance for the traditional liberal education while endorsing suggestions for ways to combine it with more marketable skill acquisition.  My reader wondered what I thought of the column.

Well, I turned the matter over in my mind, and then bethought myself of something I wrote eight years ago.  I actually posted it here in April 2011, but I like it, and seven years is several generations in the blogosphere, so for those of you have joined this conversation since that time, here it is.  The rest of you can pass the time qvelling over the summary canning of Rosanne Barr.


Some Heretical Thoughts on the Rat Race for the Top Jobs
Robert Paul Wolff

          A society is an articulated structure of roles occupied by, and functions performed by, adult men and women.  Every society, in order to continue in existence, must endlessly reproduce itself by preparing the young to occupy or perform those economic, governmental, religious, medical, legal, military roles and functions, so that in time they can take the place of persons in their parents’ generation.  Some of this work of social reproduction takes place in the family, some of it takes place in the workplace, some of it is carried on by formal and informal social groupings and organizations, and, especially in societies like ours, much of the work of social reproduction is assigned to the schools.
          In an agricultural economy, young boys and girls learn to grow crops and tend flocks.  In a hunter/gatherer economy, the young are taken along on foraging and hunting expeditions so that they can acquire the skills necessary to obtain food.  In some societies, the young apprentice to carpenters, masons, wheelwrights, or silversmiths.  They serve as pages to knights while they master the sword and mace.  As acolytes, they learn the religious mysteries of the temple.  They are articled to barristers so that they may be initiated into the arcana of the law. 
          Now it happens, from time to time, that a young man or woman comes along who has a special gift for one or another of the adult social roles in his or her society.  Some young women take naturally to the sword; some young men have a special gift for tending to the sick.  Some people have green thumbs.  Others are able to craft beautiful furniture with a chisel and saw.  But no society can survive if it depends on a regular supply of outstandingly talented young people.  A little reflection will make it clear that every society must define its adult social and economic roles so that averagely gifted young people can fill them.
          How could it be otherwise?  If the food supply were to depend on the talents of outstanding agronomists, the society would likely starve before those young Luther Burbanks appeared.  If the governance needed for survival absolutely required the gifts of a Thomas Jefferson or an Elizabeth Tudor, then a society would be doomed, for even if such a leader were to appear, he or she would not likely be followed by another, and another, and another.  Sooner or later, and probably sooner, a Millard Fillmore or George W. Bush would appear.  The legal institutions of a society must be so fashioned that lawyers of average ability can manage their essential functions.  The society will of course celebrate an Oliver Wendell Holmes, should one appear, but it cannot depend on a regular supply of jurisprudential giants.
          The truth of these observations is reinforced by the fact that almost every society systematically excludes large portions of its population from whole ranges of adult roles and functions.  Most societies before the present day excluded women from the military, the law, medicine, government, and major portions of the economy, and some still do.  Similar exclusions have regularly been imposed on groups identified by race, class, religion, or ethnicity.  The effect of these exclusions is dramatically to decrease the pool from which young people will be drawn to fill adult roles, thus making it ever more unlikely that outstandingly talented boys and girls will be available.  In effect, the more exclusionary a society is, the more it depends on its institutions being manageable by average talents.
          In American society in recent decades, formal education has taken the place of almost every other social mechanism for preparing the young for adult life.  The legal, medical, business, and military spheres have come to rely on schooling and the associated credentials and degrees to prepare young people and determine which among them shall be assigned to one or another adult role or function.
          There is nothing intrinsically wrong with society choosing this way of reproducing itself, although listening to lectures and taking written examinations is not always the best way to prepare for a productive role in adult society.  But the process is powerfully warped and conditioned by an extraneous factor so pervasive that many of us fail even to recognize it for what it is.  I refer to the steeply pyramidal structure of the rewards and privileges associated with the various roles our adult society.  To state the point simply, in modern post-industrial societies, there are a relatively few really good jobs with big salaries and great benefits, and lots of mediocre jobs with small salaries and very few benefits.  In a society like ours here in America, the quality of life of a young person is determined almost entirely by what sort of job he or she ends up in, and that, in turn, is very considerably determined by the quantity of education he or she obtains.
          Now, the top jobs [corporate lawyer, corporate executive, doctor, engineer, etc] are scarce, and their rewards are way out of proportion to those associated with jobs lower down on the pyramid.  Hence, there is a ferocious competition for the scarce slots.  Since we live in a society that gives lip service to fairness, justice, and equality, those who end up in the favored positions quite naturally tell themselves – and also tell those who fail to make it – that their success is a reward for their extraordinary accomplishment.  Those at the top of the pyramid, they tell themselves in self-congratulatory fashion, are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained.  But as we observed above, this is cannot possibly be true.  No society, not even ours, can survive if it must rely on finding an endless supply of outstanding lawyers, doctors, or CEOs to fill its top positions.  The simple truth is that despite the ferocity of the competition, those in the favored roles are, by and large, only averagely competent at them .  [Many years ago, a British child psychiatrist observed that nature only requires that women be “pretty good” mothers in order for their children to survive and flourish.  This wise observation can be generalized to all of society’s reproductive efforts.]
          Enter “metrics” – Grades, the SAT, the LSAT, the GRE, the MCAT, and all the other impressively mathematical devices for sifting and sorting young people, of allocating them to scarce positions and justifying that allocation.  These measuring exercises play absolutely no role at all in preparing young people for productive adult life.  Indeed, they do not even play any sort of role in preparing young people for the education that is, in turn, supposed to prepare them for productive adult life.  Their sole purpose is to decide, in an ostensibly objective and neutral fashion, which small number of boys and girls will be allowed to ascend to the heights of the job pyramid. 
          Now, in a society that depends on sheepherding, all the young boys and girls learn to herd sheep.  Some do it better than others, of course, but virtually all of them learn how to tend sheep sufficiently well to become shepherds.  If someone were to propose that the boys and girls be tested every two years to determine their progress in sheepherding, he would be laughed out of the village. 
          But in our society, every stage from infancy to young adulthood is accompanied by batteries of “objective” [which is to say machine graded] tests, and at crucial junctures – the completion of secondary school, the transition to college, and later the transition to graduate study – success on these tests, however that is defined, is treated as an absolute precondition for advancement to the next, more exclusive, stage of education, and thus for admission to the ever more lucrative jobs.
          After this system has been in place for a while, it quite naturally comes to be the case that the adults occupying the most favored social roles turn out to be the ones who performed unusually well on the various tests at each stage in their growing up.  After all, since performance on the tests determines whether they are admitted to the cushy jobs, it is self-evident that those in the cushy jobs will be the ones who did well on the tests.
          And now, by a flagrant bit of circular logic, society concludes that success on those tests is evidence of the outstanding ability absolutely required by the cushy jobs!  This circular argument is virtually forced on us by considerations of elementary fairness.  After all, if the cushy jobs do NOT require outstanding ability and accomplishment, then how can we possibly justify their cushiness and their scarcity?  And if the tests do not actually identify those special few capable of performing at the heights of the economy and society, then how can we explain the fact that those at the top have all done so well on the tests?
          All of this is dangerous and arrant nonsense.  And it is the nonsense on which our entire educational system rests.  There is very little evidence that success in pre-school, in elementary school, in high school, on SAT exams, in college, on GRE exams, and in graduate school is intimately linked with the ability actually to perform well the jobs  that are won by these strings of successes.  It is of course true that the senior partners of the most prestigious law firms graduated from the most prestigious law schools.  How could it be otherwise?  Those are the schools from which the law firm’s young associates are recruited.  But has anyone ever done an objective, double-blind evaluation of the work of such lawyers and of their counterparts at less prestigious firms who graduated from less prestigious law schools?   We are no better able to carry out such evaluations of the performance of lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives than we are to evaluate the performance of auto mechanics.  In the end, the “evidence” of the superiority of those in the privileged positions is the fact that they accumulated all the grades, degrees, and other markers that we have chosen to use as filters in allocating scarce desirable positions to an excess of applicants.
          Since all of this flies in the face of received wisdom that is as firmly entrenched in the collective mind of our society as the truth of the theory of the bodily humours once was, I want to spend a few moments elaborating on what I have just said.  Suppose, to continue my example, that we wish to test the hypothesis that a high score on the LSAT, admission to one of the prestigious law schools, and academic success in one's legal education are all good predictors of one's eventual successful performance as a lawyer.  How would we actually test that hypothesis? 
          Well, the first thing we would have to do -- this is absolutely fundamental to any scientific test -- is to define objective measures of successful legal performance that are logically independent of the LSAT scores, law school admission, and law school grades whose relationship to that success we are trying to measure.  How could we do that?  One thing we might do is select a group of graduates of Harvard Law School now working at prestigious New York or Washington law firms, all of whom, we may suppose, are former clerks of Federal District or Appeals Court judges or Supreme Court Justices, and count their percentage of successes in the multi-billion dollar corporate law suits they have prosecuted.  Then we could collect the same figures for a comparison group of graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston law firms.  If the first group has a significantly higher success rate than the second group, that might tell us something about the objective merits of the LSAT and the prestigious law schools in identifying or producing legal excellence.
          There are two difficulties with assembling this body of data.  The first is that on any big multi-billion dollar corporate law suit, there are hordes of lawyers on each side, so that it is really virtually impossible to identify the measurable contribution of a single lawyer.  The second problem is that graduates of Suffolk Law School working at small low-prestige Boston firms don't ever get to try multi-billion dollar corporate law suits, because the corporations demand a team of lawyers from the most prestigious and expensive law firm staffed by graduates of the most prestigious law schools, all of whom, of course, have done very well indeed on the LSAT.  I leave it to you to work out on your own the comparable tests that would be required to measure the relevance of SATs, GREs, MCATs, Ivy League degrees, and all the other markers by which we select young men and women for the best paying jobs.
          To be sure, there are times when the pressure of circumstances impels us to look past the stigmata of educational success and reach for some reliable measure of actual competence.  One story may perhaps serve to point the moral.  Some years ago, the then Dean of Yale Law School, a very bright, charming man named Tony Kronman,  became engaged to be married, and on the wedding day, his wife to be went to have her hair done at a local salon.  There was some problem with the procedure [the story as it has come to me does not include this detail], and the bride collapsed in tears.  When she called her fiancé, he came steaming into the salon and proceeded to make a considerable scene.  The upshot was that the New Haven police were called and the Dean of Yale Law School was hauled off to the police station.  [One can only imagine the malicious pleasure the police took in this.  Had they been the recipients of a Yale education, they might even have called it schadenfreude.]  When Dean Kronman was allowed his one phone call, he chose to call his colleague Owen Fiss, one of the most brilliant and respected Constitutional Law scholars in America.  Kronman told Fiss where he was, and begged Fiss to get him out in time for the wedding.  Fiss is reported to have replied, "Tony, I don't know what to do.  Call a lawyer."  There are after all some objective measures of professional competence.
          Let me repeat what I have been asserting:  Virtually all of the boys and girls in our society are capable of learning how to perform well-compensated jobs in a perfectly adequate fashion, and most of them could perform creditably in even the most demanding jobs, if given half a chance and the proper preparation.
          I know that this is educational heresy in modern America, so let me pull together the strands of my argument with two stories from my own life.  The first is an experience I had not in education, where I have spent my entire life, but on active duty in the Army, where I spent six months, more than sixty years ago.   I am of the generation that faced a military draft, and I chose to satisfy my obligation by six years in the Army National Guard.  The first six months of those years were spent on active duty, and the first eight weeks of that were devoted to what the Army calls Basic Training.  As the name implies, this is the time during which the Army teaches young men [and now young women] to march, salute, polish their boots and make their beds, disassemble and assemble a rifle, even to shoot it a bit at targets, and generally to become soldiers.  I did my Basic Training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
          On the first day of Basic, an angry, mean-looking sergeant started to yell at me and he pretty much kept on yelling for the entire eight weeks.  Everything I did was wrong.  I marched out of step, my salute was feeble, my fatigues were messy, my shoes were not properly shined, my bed was not made tight enough to bounce a quarter, and I did not stand up straight.  He threatened to make me get up at three a.m. to GI the barracks if things were out of place, to clean the latrines with a toothbrush, and to march me until I dropped.  He was not yelling only at me, of course.  He said he had never seen a sorrier collection of recruits, and he doubted that any of us would make it to the end of the eight weeks.
          Somehow, miraculously, and to my great relief, I made it through Basic, and so did every single one of the men in my company!   What is more, virtually every man and woman in every eight week cycle in every year of the modern Army’s existence makes it through Basic.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the recruits in any cycle who actually are drummed out of the Army for failing to meet its strenuous, rigorous standards. 
          The explanation of this astonishing record of success, so dramatically in contrast to the rather poor record of our country’s educational institutions, is two-fold.  First of all, the Army, in its great wisdom, demands of its recruits only what long experience has shown they are capable of.  Despite all my sergeant’s threats and harangues, all of his brow-beating and chest-thumping, the tasks in Basic are aimed roughly at the lower end of what is average for the recruits.  The Army’s task is to motivate us to do what it already knows we are capable of doing, and to make us feel good about achieving what is, after all, an average performance.
          The second reason for an almost perfect rate of success is that the Army holds those in charge responsible for the successful performance of the men they command.  If recruits start dropping out of a Basic Training company, the Company commander will get a black mark on his record that will effectively ruin his career.  That angry sergeant yelling at me will be raked over the coals by his commanding officer if I fail to do the requisite number of push-ups.  The result, of course, is that those in charge do everything in their power to ensure the adequate performance of those whom they command. 
          My second experience, which stands in complete contrast to the first, occurred twenty-five years ago in South Africa, at the University of Durban-Westville, an historically Black university which I visited regularly in conjunction with a scholarship organization that I started called University Scholarships for South African Students.  I was meeting with a self-assured, rather smug young White man who chaired the university’s Economics Department and taught their big first year introductory course.  Data I had obtained from the Registrar showed that in the previous year, only eleven percent of the students taking the course had passed.  I expressed dismay at this appalling performance, and he agreed sadly, saying that the Black students were very poorly prepared.  I asked him what made him think he was a teacher, if only one in ten of his students could pass his course.  He was genuinely astonished at the suggestion that he had any responsibility to help his students master the material.  I suggested that if he were the head of a hospital in which ninety percent of the patients died, he would be brought up on charges as a quack, but he remained thoroughly unrepentant. 
          The lesson I glean from these two stories, and from a lifetime in the Academy, is very simply this:  Any group of averagely intelligent young boys and girls, given the proper support, socialization, assistance, and opportunity, can prepare themselves to fill successfully one of the good jobs in American society.  If a large proportion of the young people of some racial, ethnic, religious, or gendered group are failing to do this, the fault lies with the society, not with the boys and girls.  Performance on so-called objective tests is neither evidence of, nor a prerequisite for, the ability to succeed in contemporary society.  The boys and girls of every city, town, or village in every society in the world are capable of becoming averagely competent and productive members of their adult world.  If they are failing to do so, it is the fault of the adults in the society.  With attention, guidance, and with the unshakable conviction on our part that they are going to succeed, they in fact will succeed in becoming averagely successful. 
          Our job as educators is to prepare young people to take their place in the adult world -- all young people, not merely those who score well on SATs or get high grades or attend prestigious and expensive schools.  It is not our job to weed out the unfit, nor is it our job to raise the national scores on tests designed to satisfy the ignorant prejudices of reactionary politicians.  If our students fail, it is our fault, and our responsibility.   In our professional lives as educators, we must act like Basic Training sergeants [without the yelling], not like the Chair of the Durban-Westville Economics Department.
          What does this mean, concretely?  Since, as you will have gathered by now, I am an inveterate story teller, I will end these remarks with two more stories that suggest, anecdotally, how we ought to act toward our students.  The first concerns a very promising young man in the University of Massachusetts Afro-American Studies doctoral program that I ran for its first dozen years.  This young man had done some extensive,, solid archival research, but was simply unable to turn it into a dissertation.  I called him into my office, after several unproductive years had gone by, and told him to bring me everything he had written.  He produced a hundred pages or so of alternative drafts of bits and snatches of this and that chapter.  I sat him down and spent an hour or so sorting out the narrative structure of the project, dividing it into chapters and cutting it off at about the halfway mark, since what he had originally imagined was a long book, not a doctoral dissertation.  When all of this was clear, I said to him:  "I want you to go home right now and write page one of chapter one.  When you are done, send it to me as an email attachment.  I will read it and send back any comments or corrections.  Tomorrow, you will send me page two, and I will respond in the same way.  You will send me one page a day, every day of the week, from now until you have a complete dissertation.  If you start wandering off course, I will alert you to that fact.  If you are getting ahead of your story, I will slow you down.  One page a day is 30 pages a month.  In eight months, you will be done."  And so he was.  He now has tenure and will soon publish his dissertation as a book.  That is the sort of commitment to our students that I have in mind.
          The second story, with which I will end, is about one of my very favorite people, Esther Terry.  When these events occurred, Esther was the Chair of the Afro-American Studies Department in which I was the Graduate Program Director.  It was she who invited me to join the department in 1990.  Esther was a student at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina when she and other students from Bennett and NCA&T carried out the famous Woolworth's Lunch Counter sit-in that helped start the modern Civil Rights Movement. 
          One semester, Esther and our colleague Steve Tracy co-taught an undergraduate course on Southern Literature.  I happened to wander into Esther's office just after the first class in the course had ended.  While we were chatting, a young Black man knocked on the open door.  "Dr. Terry," he said, "I was just in your class."  "Yes," Esther said, "I know."  "I am afraid I am not going to be able to take the course," he went on.  "Why not?" Esther asked.  "Because you have assigned a lot of books and I just don't have the money to buy them."  Without missing a beat, Esther said, "Now look, young man, I want you to stay in the course.  I have just had a fence put up around my house.  I want you to show up this afternoon and start painting it.  I will pay you, and then you will be able to buy the books."  With that, she took out some money as an advance on his wages, and sent him off to by the first book they were to read in the course.
          Esther is a very shy woman, and does not like me to tell that story.  Indeed, if I had not been there when it happened, I would never have known about it.  But she has been doing things like that for forty years, unbidden, without expecting or seeking recognition.  She simply views it as a normal part of her role as teacher.  She is my model for what a university professor should be, and it would make me very happy if she were to become yours as well.
         

15 comments:

howard b said...

Two points, other than that you would have persuaded me had I not already agreed: first, perhaps there are students really interested in chemistry or philosophy or ancient history and literature and society bundles that with learning a trade: secondly, can the function of teaching people how to survive, be abstracted from the goal of preparation for a trade? I always thought teaching kids how to survive is primary, though don't ask me for a definition of terms

s. wallerstein said...

As an educator (in the broadest sense of the term), I never saw my mission as trying to prepare people to take their place in the adult world.

Rather, I tried to reach those young people (adults are hopeless) who might subvert the adult world and to give them the critical tools to do so.

My friend David Howard, also a subversive teacher for many years and a master of metaphors, once told me to concentrate on the kids who come out of the factory with their paint chipped. I've followed his advice with a certain degree of minor success.



howard b said...

so S. Wallerstein, are you a believer in perpetual revolution? Even revolutionaries have to eat and sleep and if not be merry use the facilities.
Is Venezuela a good model?
Professor Wolff is as big a revolutionary as are you, but he appears to concede the trains have to run, if not on time, just run
Tell me your game plan

s. wallerstein said...

Howard B,

Professor Wolff is a revolutionary. I'm a subversive, not a revolutionary.

I'm in favor of perpetual subversion, not perpetual revolution.

I have no game plan, but if I had, I certainly wouldn't reveal it online.

Dean C. Rowan said...

It's encouraging that some of the work you prescribe is being done. Professors Marjorie Shultz and Shelden Zedeck conducted a study, reported in 2009, in which they identify traits independent of LSAT scores that indicate "raw lawyerly talent" (per NYT, here: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/education/11lsat.html). They later published an essay based on the study, in which they confront "the direct question: what does lawyering success look like and what competencies must one possess to achieve it?" , and consider how their proposal might most effectively be adopted.

Dean C. Rowan said...

Oops. My comment above dropped the link to the 2014 essay: https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3280&context=facpubs

LFC said...

Off topic

At an auction in China, one page of Marx's working notes for Capital has sold for close to Australian $700,000 (which apparently is over $500,000 in US $).

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/marx-manuscript-page-sells-for-a691-367

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Cheap at the price!

F Lengyel said...

A related independent computational study of the distribution of wealth shows that the most talented individuals are rarely the wealthiest. Professor Wolff's argument has independent verification for that special case in Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure.


From the abstract: It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth - considered a proxy of success - follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.

I had commented about this previously, but perhaps with Professor Wolff's beautifully argued essay in mind, it might make an impression this time.

s. wallerstein said...

It just could be that the most talented people do not seek wealth.

A quite talented Jewish lad, Karl Marx, had zero interest in getting rich, in spite of the prices which his manuscripts now are worth. Einstein wasn't into money either nor James Joyce nor Simone de Beauvoir nor Theodor Adorno nor Alan Ginsberg nor Ludwig Wittgenstein nor so many other incredibly talented people whom I could list….

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Despite parental pressure. Let us recall Karl Marx's mother's complaint: "I wish Karl would write less about capital and make some."

LFC said...

Intuitively, it makes sense, to me at least, that luck plays a role in success, whether success is defined in terms of earnings/wealth, professional prestige, or whatever. The factors that Pr Wolff's essay focuses on are important, but the overall model or explanation seems a bit too mechanical. In other words, I would suggest that the sorting processes do not operate quite as smoothly or seamlessly as the essay suggests.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff, that was the most enjoyable breakfast reading I've had in a while. Certainly agree with aims and results of education as you tell us through these memorable anecdotes. While watching your youtube lectures, I'm thinking of these topics below for which I'm looking for references or even your thoughts if you know of any?

What is the best Marxian argument for affirmative action?

Is there a Marxian response (or how would one approach if making one) to the current health-care system in the U.S.?

Sam F said...

Long time reader, first time commenter. Prof Wolff, as someone who scored well on the LSAT, went to a prestigious law school (Penn Law, where I had your son for Con Law!), and practiced in corporate law for a year, everything you say here fits my experience perfectly. When I was practicing, I constantly felt like almost everything I learned in law school and in studying for the bar was irrelevant to my work. Every once in a blue moon I would get a research question that would require me to engage in some nuanced legal reasoning. However, for the most part, the law was pretty clear (not surprisingly, since things generally run better when people know what their legal rights, obligations, etc. are), and research usually consisted in the often annoying but relatively straightforward process of trying a bunch of search terms until I found the statutory or regulatory provision that gave me the answer. I also did a lot of M&A work, which involved skimming countless legal documents but rarely required me to engage in careful reading, and other mundane tasks like asking people to provide documents and rounding up signatures. Granted, my schedule was usually unpredictable, the hours could be bad, and the work often required serious concentration and attention to incredibly boring details (that's why I left to start a PhD in philosophy). However, you don't need an expensive law degree to be able to handle any of these things, nor, I suspect, do you need one for the marketing and management tasks that come later in the career. In fact, I'll venture to say that a high school education would do just fine for most corporate law jobs.

Anyway, thanks for sharing this post again!

F Lengyel said...

It doesn't matter if the sorting process is more complicated than Prof Wolff describes: as far as the simulation is concerned, all of that complexity reduces to certain turning points for the simulated individuals, at which they decide to take on a risk that will multiply or divide their wealth by a positive factor K greater than one. The authors of the paper take this factor equal to 2, but the same Pareto outcome will apply if some other number is taken.

When some conservative commentators talk about meritocracy, they seem to suggest ergodic social mobility, meaning that every person at every point on the distribution of wealth will eventually occupy every position, including the highest position. This might hold if capitalist owners and workers had the extraordinary social mobility of Basil Bagelbaker in R. A. Lafferty's Slow Tuesday Night. Bagelbaker started each day as a panhandler. By evening, he "...would be the richest man in the world," only to lose it all by the next morning. This cartoon picture is utter nonsense.

It doesn't matter for the simulation if "the people at the top are constantly changing." You still have the effect that the most talented are rarely the peak--they occupy the long tail of the distribution.

When the pretense of the ergodic mixing of workers and owners in capitalist economies and the weaker assertion of continual turnover fail to persuade, there is the notion of desert. This is a favorite among libertarians. The market rewards ability. The simulation shows the opposite. What about effort? Yes, one has to take advantage of opportunities, but the simulation shows that luck plays an inordinate role.

What about the moral idea that everyone along the distribution gets what they deserve? Markets are just. Since the simulation doesn't include any code for this kind of mystifying moralizing, it can be summarily dismissed. It's distracting and unhelpful nonsense.

The simulation shows that the individuals at the peak of the Pareto distribution are almost never the most talented. S. Wallerstein enumerates some historical figures who selected themselves out of that end of the distribution--which only strengthens the point, but the simulation deals with the large numbers Prof Wolff is getting at.