Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Three Reasons Equal Opportunity Is Impossible

From Bottlenecks: The Real Opportunity Challenge by Joseph Fishkin. The book being discussed is Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity by Joseph Fiskin.
Three Reasons Equal Opportunity Is Impossible
The Family. Parents are free to make decisions about how to raise their children. Not everyone has the same resources—and even if resources were much closer to equal, not everyone has the same approach to parenting. So opportunities are going to be deeply unequal from day one.

Merit is always, in part, past advantage. Sometimes the idea of equal opportunity is focused on what happens later in life, aiming for meritocracy in the allocation of, say, coveted college places or jobs. But “merit” is elusive. There’s no way to disentangle our true, underlying merit from the accumulated results of our past interactions with opportunities and advantages.

We’re all different. We have different goals. The same opportunities that are valuable to me may seem pointless to you. Moreover, because we’re different, I may need different opportunities to develop and grow than you need. Suppose I need glasses to see the blackboard, or an aide to enable me to participate in the class. When exactly are opportunities “equal”?
Quite right. Now what to do about it? I look forward to the next posts in the series.

I think there are three books that likely tie together. There is this one, Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity by Joseph Fiskin. There is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. There is More Like Us by James Fallows (out of print). The first, by Fishkin, makes the case that things are inherently unequal from the start. The second, by Taleb, makes the case that we live in an inherently uncertain world, and human systems have to be adaptive and robust. The third, by Fallows, makes the case that an unacknowledged strength of American institutions and culture is its predisposition to second chances.

I would add to this the recognition and necessity of focusing on productivity. The capacity to achieve desired life outcomes is predicated upon some minimal level of productivity and there are useful heuristics for achieving higher levels of productivity (effortful work, self-control, self-discipline, perseverance, education attainment, intact families, etc.) which have very high correlations between attribute and desired outcome. For some reason in recent decades we have become highly reluctant to communicate these heuristics, likely for being seen to blame the victim. But not communicating their importance does not remove their importance.

In this post, Fishkin is hinting at what I think was Fallows' insight - we cannot achieve equal opportunity and equal outcomes is self-destructive. The alternative is second chances. How do we balance exacting sufficient consequences for bad behavior and bad decisions so that we avoid moral hazard while at the same time maximizing the capacity for second chances. Now there's a really interesting conversation.

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