Monday, August 27, 2012

The Search for Equality

Everyone believes in equality, but no one agrees on what it means to be equal.

In some sense it’s all about semantics. We think we know what the word “equal” means, and yet we constantly get the issue confused.

Equal opportunity does not mean equal outcomes. In fact, in a fair race, it is impossible to have equal outcomes. Competition means unequal outcomes.

Those who want equal outcomes really want proportional representation at the finish line. But then, why run the race if the outcome is, in some way, fixed in advance.

The only way to guarantee equal or proportional outcomes is to rig the game.

People get confused about equal because they think it means “same.”

Men and women have equal rights, but that does not mean that they are the same. 

Equal rights does not mean equal status, equal prestige, equal respect, equal authority or equal responsibility.

Being equal to a task does not mean that everyone who has the same equal rights as you is also equal to the task.

In other contexts, equal means having equal value.

The value of a sculpture by Donatello might be equal to that of a painting by Vermeer, but that does not mean that the two artworks are the same or identical. Nor does it preclude your like the one a lot more than the other.

Or better, build the same house in Bel Air and Akron and you will find that their prices are radically unequal.

Value is determined by the marketplace. It is not fixed or graven in stone.

All Americans have an equal number of votes in each election. They have an equal right to express their views in the public square or the blogosphere. They do not have a right to an equal audience share.

Despite what feminists think, Americans do not have a right to receive equal pay, even when they have the same job title. No two individuals do the same work with equal efficiency. Two robots, maybe. Two humans, never.

Two truck drivers do not necessarily do the same job. The same applies to two dentists and two secretaries. 

Normally, the free market decides who gets what. Those who do not trust the marketplace, because it offends their sense of equality, would rather have trial lawyers and government apparatchiks decide.

But, ask yourself, what is more likely to be fair, a free and open marketplace or a bunch of government officials who are not motivated by what is best for your company?

In principle, if your company compensates people unfairly it will lose out in competition with other companies that compensate people more fairly.

But, what happens when the marketplace seems to break down and one group of people garners earnings that seem vastly out of proportion to those of everyone else?

Strangely, those who attack such inequities never single out the rock stars and sports heroes whose income is the most grossly disproportionate to their contribution to society.

No one is protesting Taylor Swift’s income or Dwayne Wade’s. Those who attack income inequality save their fire for corporate CEOs, Wall Street bankers, and rogue traders.

The argument for income equality or even fairness disguises a fundamental distrust of a marketplace based on the profit motive. The critics of the market want a new quasi-socialist state where bureaucrats decide.

If their interest were otherwise their movement would have been called, Occupy Beverly Hills, not Occupy Wall Street.

Of course, the bureaucrats will decide on the basis of a specious ideal of equality, not on the basis of what is best for the business.

Similarly, we all agree that everyone should have an equal right to own property. With the exception of the few unrepentant Bolsheviks no one believes that everyone should have an equal amount of property.

Of course, the marketplace is imperfect. It is simply the best instrument that has yet to be devised for distributing goods and services, for allocating resources and for rewarding those who contribute to society.

Besides, there’s more to life than money. And, there is more to markets than money.

Many government executives could make far more money in the private sector. Using their own free will they have decided to  trade income for prestige, authority, and, yes, power.

Some individuals prefer to spend more time with their children. Thus they tend to earn less and to rise to the top less often. 

They are exercising a free choice, based on an exercise of moral responsibility. Do you want to quantify the satisfaction gained by taking one’s parental responsibilities seriously?

Should the government take that joy away from them in order to distribute it equally to other parents who work longer hours?

What about those who prefer to spend more time lolling around the pool and less time working? Is it unfair to discriminate against them when it comes time for promotion?

If some people choose to work less, it is certainly not the government’s job to ensure that they will receive the same compensation and the same career opportunities as those who spend more time on the job.

In many cases women choose to spend more time with their children and less time on the job. This produces gender disparity in the workplace. Feminists use the fact to recruit new cult followers. They argue that if there more men than women in high executive positions, this can only mean that women are being subjected to discrimination.

If men and women are equal, the unreason goes, they should be paid equally, be promoted equally and be equally represented in the executive suite and corporate boards.

For people who do not know how to think, it makes perfectly good sense. For the rest of us, it sets an unrealistic, nearly impossible standard. Compare reality against an imaginary perfection and reality will always fall short.

In truth, as many studies have noted, when you factor in lifestyle choices men and women are being rewarded fairly.

I have posted about this topic before. In this week’s issue of The Economist, the columnist who writes as Schumpeter reviews the issues again.

Trying to help cure the “angst” that arises when feminists see instances of unequal representation at the top of corporate hierarchies, Schumpeter writes:

Several factors hold women back at work. Too few study science, engineering, computing or maths. Too few push hard for promotion. Some old-fashioned sexism persists, even in hip, liberal industries. But the biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organised you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours and the “anytime, anywhere” culture of senior corporate jobs. A McKinsey study in 2010 found that both women and men agreed: it is tough for women to climb the corporate ladder with teeth clamped around their ankles. Another McKinsey study in 2007 revealed that 54% of the senior women executives surveyed were childless compared with 29% of the men (and a third were single, nearly double the proportion of partnerless men).

Some companies are adjusting themselves in order to satisfy the feminist yearning for perfect sameness, but they will be competing against companies that have a different corporate ethos.

Here, again, the marketplace will decide.

In Schumpeter’s words:

For most big jobs, there is no avoiding mad hours and lots of travel. Customers do not care about your daughter’s flute recital. Putting women in the C-suite is important for firms, but not as important as making profits; for without profits a company will die. So bosses should try hard to accommodate their employees’ family responsibilities, but only in ways that do not harm the bottom line.


Anonymous said...

I agree whole-heartedly, Doc
I chose an engineering degree.
I chose to remain chidless
I chose the long hours, the arduous travel, the multiple relocations, and I demanded the salary I knew I deserved as an executive.
I never thought of myself as a "female" before I thought of myself as someone every company would want to hire to lead their team.
I know other female executives who have husbands that stsy home with the kids, or very good nannies...
I know many male executives who see their children too rarely, whose wives are saints for taking care of everything at home as well.
Either gender takes a serious personal sacrifice to follow a high-power career. And both genders should expect that "balance" really doesn't exist...
As I look back, and forward over my career, I am still happy with my choice. But it is not for everyone. We should not expect different treatment and get the same wage.
I get the same treatment as my male counterparts. And I get the same wage.
I have never considered myself a feminist. My daddy just taught me that I could do anything I wanted, and he brought me to the hardware store when I was little, let me help work on the car, and thankfully never put a thought in my head that I got special dispensation because I am a girl.
(Courtesy, chivalry, doors opening, and gentlemanly behavior are still always welcomed, but that shouldn't interfere with the ability to do a job that you are good at)
I outperformed everyone in school because I was one of the smartest and hardest-working, and did the same in every job. I never once got ahead, I believe, because I am female. I would never put a female employee ahead of a male, all things equal. I believe in meritocracy, and have strove to drive that in my 100's of employees in my career so far.
And in my nieces and nephews...

JP said...

"Either gender takes a serious personal sacrifice to follow a high-power career. And both genders should expect that "balance" really doesn't exist...
As I look back, and forward over my career, I am still happy with my choice. But it is not for everyone. We should not expect different treatment and get the same wage."

This is really one of the problems with life, generally.

In order to succeed, meaning to actually make use of your abilities to the fullest extent of your abilities, you have to sacrifice the other important things in life, so you really can't win.

So, you have to underachieve to properly have a family life, meaning that you're going to be miserable (and bored out of your mind) because you're underachieving.

Or you can dedicate enough of your time to professional pursuits and then have no time to deal with your family, so you're going to be miserable there too, because of lack of emotional intimacy.

It's annoying that there's no way to win.

Anonymous said...

I think there is enough room in the world for the steady workers that want to go home at night, and those that want to be CEO some day...
I can only speak from my own experience on the workforce and what I read, but it seems that on general in most developed countries, folks can have a steady job and go home to their families...
If they want a high-power job, they must accept the sacrifices that go along with it...
I expect people on my workforce to go home to their families, to have vacations, and to have a life...
I think it makes for healthier workers....

JP said...

The problem is that going home to your family only means something if you have a job that means something to you.

You can only enjoy the vacations and family time if you feel like you are achieving something.

So, it's a catch-22. You can't have a meaningful job if you want to have a family because you won't have time to put enough into the job for it to mean anything.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think that Schumpeter is talking about the glass ceiling. As was Anne-Marie Slaughter who explained that she could not function as a high ranking state department official while still being a good mother to her teenage children.

He is saying that if you want to rise to the top, you cannot really have a balanced life.

JP said...

The problem is that the jobs worth having (meaning the big jobs) don't allow you time actually function as a person.

Yes, you can settle for a small job and be able to do things other than work, but you will feel like a failure because you aren't the CEO or a major executive.

It's more than a glass ceiling or equality issue. You really can't be successful and use your talents and be able to function as a person at the same time.

Nick Carter M. said...

This conversation reminded me of something:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. -Ecc 1:3-4

I know Solomon goes on to say it is good to do well in life, but it is worth pondering. Is balance the ultimate goal?

Parents that don't spend enough time with their kids tend to spoil them because of their guilt. I've seen families that have both parents working top level jobs and all the kids turned out well, but they are always very close-knit and do everything together.

epoche* said...

I like this post a lot Stuart, there really cannot be such a thing as equal pay for equal work. I make more hourly than my manager because I am worth more to the company than him. Is this a civil rights violation? What they really want is equal pay for the same job title. If private employers are not able to choose whom to fire than some other metric must be chosen, but what criteria should be used instead? Private employers are not allowed to issue IQ tests to employees because of "adverse impact". Affirmative action is part of the reason we have a student debt crisis yet no one can say anything about this for fear of being labelled a misogynist. I dont know if Betty Friedan ever pointed out that the Universities ran their own affairs until the higher education act of 1965. The college degree prior to the Feminine Mystique was not a status producing credential that employers had to accept.