`Best’ Is About `Us’

Why don’t we express and follow clear principles on what sort of inequality is how bad? Last week I suggested that we want the flexibility to use inequality as an excuse to grab resources when grabbing is easy, but don’t want to obligate ourselves to grab when grabbing is hard.

It seems we prefer similar flexibility on who are the “best” students to admit to elite colleges. Not only do inside views of the admission process seem to show careful efforts to avoid clarity on criteria, ordinary people seem to support such flexibility:

Half [of whites surveyed] were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state. When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions—apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (more)

Matt Yglesias agrees:

This is further evidence that there’s no stable underlying concept of “meritocracy” undergirding the system. But rather than dedicating the most resources to the “best” students and then fighting over who’s the best, we should be allocating resources to the people who are mostly likely to benefit from additional instructional resources.

But this seems an unlikely strategy for an elite coalition to use to entrench itself. If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most by objective criteria like income or career success, we could use prediction markets. The complete lack of interest in this suggests that isn’t really the agenda.

Much of law is like this, complex and ambiguous enough to let judges usually draw their desired conclusions. People often say the law needs this flexibility to adapt to complex local conditions. I’m skeptical.

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  • The following is from The Last Psychiatrist. It is idiosyncratic, but highly applicable to this topic, IMHO.

    …[I]t is characterized by a kind of psychological laziness: on the one hand, they don’t want to have to conform to society’s impossible standards, but on the other hand they don’t want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard. They want anobjective bar to be changed to fit them– they want “some other omnipotent entity” to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about look at your GPA: you know, and I know, that if college graded you based on the actual number of correct answers you generated, no curve, then you would have gotten an R. Somehow that R became an A. The question is, why bother? Why not either make grades rigorous and valid so we know exactly what they mean, or else do away with them entirely? Because in either case society and your head would implode from the existential vacuum. Instead, everyone has to get As AND the As have to be “valid” so you feel good enough to pay next year’s tuition, unfortunately leaving employers with no other choice but to look for other more reliable proxies of learning like race, gender, and physical appearance. Oh. Did you assume employers would be more influenced by the fixed grades than their own personal prejudices? “Wait a second, I graduated 4.0 from State, and the guy you hired had a 3.2 from State– the only reason you didn’t hire me is because I’m a woman!” Ok, this is going to sound really, really weird: yeah. The part that’s going to really have you scratching your head is why did either of you need college when the job only requires a 9th grade education?

    Link: http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2013/05/dove.html

  • arch1

    Robin, is there anything surprising here? I would be surprised if peoples’ self interest were found *not* to influence their principles.

    • arch1

      I should have said “stated” or “ostensible” principles.

  • BenGolden1

    “If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most by objective criteria like income or career success, we could use prediction markets. The complete lack of interest in this suggests that isn’t really the agenda.”

    Were prediction markets for college admission ever seriously championed as a policy idea? Have any prediction markets (besides financials, ag, etc.) gained much traction?

    Your conclusion seems reasonable, but I don’t find this line of argument to be particularly strong support.

    • If they were seriously considered but rejected, wouldn’t that suggest more wider sympathy for them, and so it seems I also couldn’t claim a lack of interest in them as evidence. That line of argument seems to say one can never use a lack of interest in something as evidence.

      • BenGolden1

        There are policies that attract enough support to gain mainstream attention and then are pretty widely denounced (i.e. return to the gold
        standard, slavery reparations). I think these can be used as evidence of something, but even then, it could be either disagreement with policy’s objectives, or skepticism that the policy would work.

      • I actually can’t recall any denunciation of slavery reparations. It tends to be shrugged off, perhaps analogous to legalization of marijuana (legalizing harder drugs is denounced).

      • BenGolden1

        Sure. I’d consider that shrugging to be evidence either that people don’t care about the objectives of reparations, or else don’t see reparations as an effective way of achieving the objectives.

      • IMASBA

        There are tons of reasons for people, even those who care a great deal about economic inequality and social mobility, to be against it:

        1) in the days of slavery most white and Asian people were dirt poor or even basically slaves themselves (serfdom), their families did not profit from slavery, most people living today are descendants of these poor families

        2) reparations would be paid by the government, meaning taxes, meaning the brunt would be born by the middle class who are descendants of poor families that had nothing to do with slavery

        3) reparations would mostly shift money around inside the working and middle classes instead of reducing current economic inequality

        4) there are better ways to help descendants of slaves that also help remedy current economic inequality and social mobility (for example the way European countries ensure affordable access to quality education for all children, wasting no taxpayer money on elite institutions that can set their own tuition, so there doesn’t have to be a fight over racial quotas)

    • Joe Teicher

      >Have any prediction markets (besides financials, ag, etc.) gained much traction?

      I don’t think those really count as “prediction markets.” They don’t exist to predict anything, they exist because people want to take or reduce exposure in those products. If the resulting market prices are useful predictors (not sure that is the case) then that is a minor side effect. Prediction markets have no reason to exist other than to predict something. Successful markets (not just asset markets, but goods markets as well) rely on people who are more interested in taking a position than in getting the right price, and hence are willing to “give up some edge” to trade. Prediction markets don’t have that and so they fail.

  • BenGolden1

    Your argument here seems to be that people frame selfish intentions (grabbing resources) as unselfish ones (promoting equality). Is your view that this is always the case, usually, mostly, or sometimes, and are you referring to motivations at the individual level, or only societal trends?

    For instance is Matt Yglesias trying to grab resources for himself by suggesting a new strategy for allocation of college dollars? Not in the sense that he would benefit if his ideas grow in popularity, but that his strategy is purposely designed to benefit people like him.

  • I’m surprised you didn’t reference Leo Katz’ book on incoherent law:


  • wophugus

    I agree that much of the law in our legal regime is indeterminate, but I disagree that the law does not need to be flexible. This is easily testable: lots of legal regimes have been simple and inflexible. Customary tribal law, for example, often pairs strict liability with simple damages: “injure a hand pay x, take a sheep pay y, kill a man pay z, etc.”. The result is that the law often reaches results people find unjust, they seek self help, and you get a blood feud. Very few scholars think early medieval Europe had a legal regime that improved on the western Roman empire’s. Or you can look to the end of the medieval period, where relatively simple medieval law started to give way to the relatively complex ius commune in Germany by popular demand, simply because it worked better.

    It really is a balancing act: too clear-cut and the outcomes frequently don’t map with our sense of justice. Too ambigous and ambiguous and the outcomes start being governed more and more by the whims of elites. You can’t get it right, you can only hope to get it better.

    Also worth pointing out that “complex” often counters, rather than enhances, “ambiguous.”

  • >If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most >by objective criteria like income or career success,…

    The problem with Yglasias’s suggestion, it seems to me, is it would create perverse incentives: learn later rather than sooner to maximize potential improvement.

    • Yglesias is not an economist, he’s a journalist with a background in philosophy.

    • IMASBA

      I think part of Yglesias’s suggestion simply means spending 10k on an inner city high school will do more than spending 10k on a single, already privileged, university student. Society as a whole would probably benefit more from the investment in the inner city school. Similarly turning 10 ghetto kids from uneducated welfare receivers into average computer programmers would do a whole lot more for society than giving someone who would easily be an average programmer without financial help turn into an average programmer with an MIT degree on his CV.

  • As a law prof, I could not agree more with Hanson’s closing comment about the open-ended texture of law. I would also add that the law in many matters is not just ambiguous; often it is also contradictory, like the “opposing proverbs” problem in day-to-day life)

    • Matt

      I think a quick walk through Hart’s “No vehicles in the park” example is sufficient to at least make the non-conspiracy theory plausible. There is infinite factual complexity to the world, and language is ambiguous so it is difficult to formulate clear rules that can be applied to every circumstance in a satisfactory way. The legal realists can be seen as intending to empower judges; another interpretation is that they were simply unmasking an ambiguity that was always there but not acknowledged.

      • I agree that the Legal Realists, the natural candidates for judicial empowerers, aren’t plausibly seen as such. In fact, Legal Realism arose against the entrenchment judges, in support of the New Deal, against natural law and the conservative Supreme Court.

        The issue of judicial entrenchment arises expressly in today’s jurisprudence around the interpretation of statutes. The (usually conservative) textualists claim to speak against judicial entrenchment. I’ve maintained that textualism is more entrenching than the practices of those who look to legislative history. ( http://tinyurl.com/d8pos9 )

        Whose entrenchment? If ambiguity plays a significant role in allowing the entrenchment of interests, it probably isn’t the interests of judges. I don’t think judges enjoy their discretion. Their great fear is reversal on appeal–as is appropriate–and they prefer less risky guidelines. The entrenchment would be of interests who want to rely on judges “class instincts,” so to speak.

        If this kind of motivated ambiguity exists, it probably is most expressed in the criminal law. Consider the now notorious “stand your ground” laws many jurisdictions have adopted. They are more explicit than common-law self-defense. If Hanson’s approach applies anywhere, it would seem to apply here: opposition to stand your ground serves some entrenchment because it eliminates an ambiguity in self-defense law. Whose entrenchment?

  • As to law, I must first disclose that I have an occupational stake in legal ambiguities.

    Your theory that law is fundamentally ambiguous to protect or entrench interests contradicts standard economic analysis of the common law as serving economic efficiency. The common law was a finely tuned instrument for promoting economic efficiency.

  • VV

    I think that conditional prediction markets are unviable: they are much more manipulable than unconditional ones, and even without deliberate manipulation, they can be subject to systematic errors that persist indefinitely due to the low information content of the feedback signals.

    Suppose that predictors have a widespred misconception that albino students perform poorly. They always bet against them, therefore the college never admits them and the relative markets get cancelled. Since no feedback signal is generated, the predictors don’t correct their beliefs.

    Or suppose instead there are a few wealthy individuals who hate albinos. They can heavily bet against albino students, even if they don’t honestly believe that they would perform poorly, causing the college not to admit them. Since the markets get cancelled, these dishonest predictors don’t even lose money (on the other hand, betting dishonestly on unconditional prediction markets means that you expect to lose money).

    Conditional prediction markets are mob rule and plutocracy. I think you might want to reconsider advocating them.

    • There are easy problems and hard problems, and there are good mechanisms and bad mechanisms. The relevant question is: holding constant the problem, which mechanisms do better. Your discussion is instead about holding a mechanism constant and varying the problem.

      • VV

        Nope, I’m just pointing out why your favoured mechanism doesn’t work.

        For the problem of college admission, once you indentify the objective you want your students to maximize, you need to find a system to predict it. It is esentially a problem of statistical regression, with the additional constraints that the system must be repeatable, difficult to game and “fair”.
        A standardized exam which measures a combination of IQ and relevant technical knowledge and skills seems to be the obvious choice.

        You might use unconditional prediction markets for post hoc evaluation of your prediction system: if you find that your prediction system does much worse than the prediction market at forecasting the objective outcomes then you might want to revise it.

      • IMASBA

        “A standardized exam which measures a combination of IQ and relevant technical knowledge and skills seems to be the obvious choice.”

        But it’s not the right choice: IQ is maleable by education, high IQ individuals often have trouble performing because they cannot focus well on a single topic and have poor study habits, relevant skills and knowledge are often not available at the high school level and there are far more people who could get a degree from an elite college than there are places at elite colleges (which is why foreigners from far less prestiguous, state funded universities often perform just as well in the real world). Think outside the box, ask yourself if the problem you were trying to solve makes any sense itself, or at least look over the border, would be my advice.

      • VV

        IQ does correlate with various success metrics, at least around and below the average (there is probably not much difference in terms of actual performances between IQ 120 and IQ 140, while the difference between IQ 80 and IQ 60 is extreme).

        Very high IQ people may perhaps be more likely to have atypical minds which are “overfitted” to these kind of tests and might perform properly in real life scenarios.

        Since these people are rare, when designing an admission test you might just ignore the fact that they exist, or you might tune your test to penalize people with ADHD or Asperger disorder. However, given a sufficient large population, any test will generate false positives and false negatives.

        It seems to me that most state funded universities over the world use exams as their main admission criterion. Overly complicated and vague admission criteria which leave lots of wiggle room are typical of elite American colleges.

  • Kirk Holden

    Yet we excoriate the PRC for behaving as you suggest. They are completely transparent and mostly rational about the path to the outcomes and the logic of selection. But since this upsets our delusions of individual merit (the Robinson Crusoe Model) we buy our ink by the barrel to write about their crimes.


    “Why don’t we express and follow clear principles on what sort of inequality is how bad? Last week I suggested that we want the flexibility to use inequality as an excuse to grab resources when grabbing is easy, but don’t want to obligate ourselves to grab when grabbing is hard.”

    So you’re saying “well, last yar the cops couldn’t catch every shoplifter and people didn’t riot in the streets over it, so let’s be consistent and legalize murder”?

    “It seems we prefer similar flexibility on who are the “best” students to admit to elite colleges in the first place. Not only do inside views of the admission process seem to show careful efforts to avoid clarity on criteria, ordinary people seem to support such flexibility”

    You seem to forget that in most countries “ordinary people” oppose the very existence of elite colleges. You should correct for American cultural attitudes.

    “If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most by objective criteria like income or career success, we could use prediction markets. The complete lack of interest in this suggests that isn’t really the agenda.”

    Seriously? So because they don’t believe your idea is the best solution they must not be serious about solving the problem? (Btw, how realistic is a prediction market on the future success of individual18 year olds, not to mention the privacy issues?)

    • IMASBA

      To expand on my remark about cultural attitudes: people cheat when they perceive “the system” to be unfair, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want meritocracy, on the contrary. You can go to Afghanistan and look how half the population is a hired gun, smuggler, poppy grower or corrupt official, but had those people been raised in Norway most of them had been hardworking law-abiding citizens. You can’t just assume people view the existence of elite colleges as perfectly compatible with meritocracy and then eliminate the existence of elite colleges from the equation when in reality in most countries people (and even governments) have resisted the establishment of American-style elite colleges precisely because they believed it reduced meritocracy.

  • Lord

    I think it more plausible flexibility is necessary to cope with uncertainty. We have no way to anticipate all future possibilities or conditions that may arise, so we set about establishing principles to guide us but we know they will conflict but are unsure how, or even how that conflict should be resolved without experiencing the results.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most by objective criteria like income or career success, we could use prediction markets. The complete lack of interest in this suggests that isn’t really the agenda.”

    …or that it’s never seriously been considered. I’d guess that admitting the students who could benefit most from college is at least a factor that goes in to a typical admissions officers’ decisionmaking.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Somehow we have got to do many things differently, do them much more ably,
    and do all of them simultaneously, collaboratively and fast. Ready or not,
    like it or not, we are presented with a planetary emergency.This is the time
    for making necessary behavioral changes by thinking globally and acting
    locally. Science and common sense will give us direction. What we cannot do
    is sit on the sidelines. No, we cannot afford to sit this one out. All hands
    are needed on the deck at this critical moment in the history of our
    planetary home. Our generation is simply not stepping up to the challenges
    before us. The consequences of our failures appear colossal and profound
    with regard to the prospects for future human well being and environmental
    health. The very last thing a responsible person is to do in such
    circumstances is consciously and deliberately choose to remain silent, I
    believe. Are we not participants in and witnesses to yet another
    preposterous failure of nerve? When are the leaders going to speak out in an
    intellectually honest way and act with a sense of moral courage? How
    terrible are things going to have to become on Earth before
    the-powers-that-be begin to talk about and do the right things, according to
    the lights and best available knowledge they possess? Whatsoever is real and
    true must be acknowledged if we are to respond ably to climate
    destabilization, pollution, biodiversity loss, resource dissipation,
    environmental degradation and overpopulation,but the manufactured ‘nothing
    is wrong’ reality is well-established and those who speak truth to power
    are consistently marginalized and ignored. It is difficult even to imagine
    how much can be done in such unfavorable circumstances. Still our efforts
    are vital because the-powers-that-be are living in a fool’s paradise, and
    the stakes are such that the things that are not being acknowledged will
    likely destroy life as we know it on Earth. We know how to stop
    overpopulation humanely.The gravity of this and other looming human-driven
    global threats are understood and could be confronted with a long overdue
    determination to do what is necessary. All of the world’s human resources,
    including overrated intelligence and technology, need to be deployed in
    order to overcome the emerging and converging wicked problems looming
    ominously on the horizon.The-powers-that-be could save the world if they
    acted with the intellectual honesty, moral courage and power they possess to
    sound alarm bells, forcefully warn the world, and call out loudly and
    clearly for changes toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate
    enterprises. But most of the necessary changes are unlikely to happen,
    The-powers-that-be want to maintain the status quo, come what may. They lack
    the moral courage and the imagination to save the world we are blessed to
    inhabit as a fit place for habitation by children everywhere and coming