Who Watches Discrimination Watchers?

Two LA area colleges, UCLA and USC, have a famous rivalry. Imagine that local law firms took sides, preferring to hire graduates from one or the other law school. Imagine further that some USC lawyers at a UCLA-favoring firm complained about this, calling it bias, pure and simple; UCLA grads coordinate to prefer other ULCA grads, independent of their qualifications. These USC lawyers demand a quota system, to ensure equitable hiring. If management resists, they plan to go to the media, to get the public mad about this, and then either use legal or norm/mob pressures to get their way.

Firm leaders say instead that UCLA trains better in their type of law, they can find better people by using personal connections, and many of their clients and collaborating specialists (like detectives) are also UCLA grads. Also, there are productivity advantages from having similar kinds of people, trained similarly, working together.

Now both kinds of theories are plausible. There are often productivity advantages from similar people working together, and yet humans also quite consistently, naturally, and even unconsciously coordinate to use relatively arbitrary features to form mutual-admiration societies that promote each other. And disentangling these effects can be quite hard. The UCLA grads involved may themselves not even know why they prefer other UCLA grads. (Random noise is of course also possible.)

What sort of evidence might we collect to decide? We could look at whether UCLA grads talk directly about preferring each other. We might note when they make mean jokes about USC grads, and prefer to socialize with each other. We could experimentally vary the school label for particular applicants, and see if that changes their chances. But even if that does change chances, defenders of the status quo could attribute this to well-calibrated statistical discrimination, as we can’t usually look into the depths of others’ souls.

We could do statistical regressions to predict who gets hired based on which individual features, and also school. But even if those stats found no significant coefficient on school, after controlling for other features, USC grads might claim that the weights used on which desired features count more are biased by what UCLA grads are taught to do and to value, and it isn’t fair if USC grads aren’t taught the same things.

This same sort of story can of course apply to many other features besides schools. Those who hire may prefer candidates who play particular sports, watch particular TV shows, live in particular neighborhoods, and wear particular styles of dress, or have particular work hour preferences. In all such cases, these choices might be due to productivity advantages, or due to arbitrary mutual promoting coordination. And these same processes can also influence who we choose as friends, lovers, and other kinds of associates.

When the purported feature of coordination is rather specific and local, such as school attended or sport preferred, our usual attitude is to allow local associations to “discriminate”, that is, to make choices correlated with such features. We tend to see competition between such associations as sufficient to discipline those who discriminate badly. If a law firm has a hiring strategy that picks worse lawyers, it will suffer naturally as a result; little need for the rest of us to add punishments. And we also balk at the enormous effort that would be required to impose, monitor, and enforce quotas, or other forms of preferential treatment, on a vast number of such features.

But attitudes on preferential treatments may change as (a) choosers face weaker competition and losses from choosing badly, (b) we consider features that are harder to change, (c) wider social scopes all coordinate to prefer the same features together, (d) many features come together as a package preferred across wider social scopes, (e) the choices made look closer to “dominance” relative to “prestige”, and (f) the features involved are strongly correlated with pretty objective and obvious coordinations to mistreat people that we are confident happened in the past, or in current societies of which we disapprove.

Sometimes we are more sympathetic to intervention, that is, to government or social/norm/mob pressure to insist on something closer to preferential treatment to ensure equity. But note: if we believe in a common tendency of humans to coordinate to form self-promoting mutual-admiration societies, and so are tempted to authorize such intervention to suppress this, we must also believe that this same tendency will induce similar group attempts to coordinate to take control over any powers in charge of such intervention. In order to use that power to directly favor themselves.

For example, if a committee is formed at a LA law firm to decide on the details of a USC vs UCLA quota system, a committee full of UCLA grads would probably make different choices than a committee full of USC grads. Thus these groups would vie for control over this committee. And if the problem was that UCLA grads dominate in the firm, wouldn’t they be most likely to win this contest for control?

The key claim might be that while we worry less about many small uncoordinated self-admiration societies, there is in fact a very large social coalition, spread across many associations, and using a large package of features to promote itself. Making it especially able to resist competitive pressures.

But in this case, I have to worry that this coalition seems especially likely to take control of this intervention process, and then use it to favor themselves. So I don’t feel much more confident about the political coalitions and government agencies that would be in charge of choosing preferential treatment regimes, relative to the many smaller organizations which would instead make such decisions in the lack of such intervention.

I’d rather try to increase the strength of competitive pressures on smaller organizations, to break up this larger coalition. For example, if there were one big law firm in LA that most all lawyers worked for, I’d rather try to break this firm up into many smaller law firms. Or imagine most all judges in LA come from UCLA, are in charge of choosing new LA judges, favor UCLA lawyers in the courtroom, and thus induce LA law firms prefer UCLA grads. In this case I’d rather break up this local cabal of judges, by bringing judges into LA from all across the nation or world.

So what I worry most about are centralized choke points controlled by groups responsible mainly to themselves. Groups who take over these choke points can then arbitrarily favor others like themselves for key positions, and punish any of them for favoring anyone else. Central government agencies, academic discipline leaders, professional associations, accreditation bodies, etc. Even if such people claim that their highest priority is global equity, to resist the worst self-promoting coalitions out there, I just find it hard to trust them.

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