Friday, April 29, 2011

Inchoate moral intuition is not "hypocrisy"

UPDATE 5/4/11: Megan McArdle rebuts my points one by one; my response here.
Andrew Sullivan predicts that the assertion below from Robin Hanson, glossing a video in which students struggle to answer why students' GPA shouldn't be "redistributed" as pay is by taxation, will "piss off some liberal readers."  Boy is he ever right -- and Andrew, doesn't it piss you off? Just what was your position on the PPACA, or on the extra revenue called for in Bowles-Simpson? In any case, here's Hanson:
Most people believe that redistributing money within a nation is good, but that redistributing GPA within a school is bad, and if asked why these should be treated differently, have little to say. My point isn’t to say one can’t come up with reasons to treat these differently.  One could, for example, argue that we prefer differing school signals to help employers sort people into jobs, to achieve higher productivity so that the pie is bigger when we redistribute money. My point is that most people can’t think of such reasons, making it pretty unlikely that such reasons are the cause of their opinions...

We humans are much better at coming up with reasons for opinions than at choosing coherent sets of opinions – we clearly have a powerful inbuilt capacity for hypocrisy.
I should proceed with caution here, because I get the impression we're dealing with a very smart (if smug) cookie.  Still, in response to this challenge from Hanson added as a postscript...
Those who think it unfair to evaluate what students said on the spot, how much better do you think the reasons would have become if the students were given an hour to think about it by themselves?  A week?
Let me grant myself an hour. And I'm happy to share whatever grade I get.

1. GPA is more tightly tied to individual performance than earnings are. Granting that a) grading is an imperfect measure of the quality of student input, and b) earnings bear some relationship to performance, it's still true that student performance bears a closer relationship to grade than the social utility of the average person's work does to that person's earnings.  Also, we have the right as a community to take some pay back as price of admission, and no right because no motive to take GPA back. Collectively, we pay someone for performing a service because we want what they're selling. Taxing back a measure of that payment is as organic to human society as paying it out  in the first place, since tax of one kind or another is the price of admission to any human community. "Taxing" the measure of school performance, on the other hand,  only makes sense if you regard GPA as a commodity rather than as a condition for further learning.

2. As Hanson intimates, developing one's value in the workplace is largely dependent on learning things in school.  You cannot progress adequately through our educational system without having your performance measured.  Even if you want to imagine more optimal performance measures than what schools now use, you cannot learn all you need to know to equip yourself for further learning (and in some cases, for the occupation of your choice) without some performance measures -- you cannot progress without ascertaining your prior progress. Earning certain grades equips you, or certifies that you are equipped, to progress to doing something more complicated. Earning more money simply equips you to enjoy yourself more.  (Well okay, earning more money does equip people to invest more.  But the really large individual investors in our society are not going to lack for capital because of oppressive taxation.) 

3. Income redistribution in the U.S. is very moderate. No one who makes a lot of money has cause to complain that the state is depriving him or her of the fruits of labor.  And by multiple measures of national well-being, humans thrive best in societies that invest in commonwealth, that is, do their utmost to provide the conditions for a decent life to all and to moderate without eliminating disparities of wealth.

4. While objectively it's all but impossible to identify any of our accomplishments as products of free will and  therefore merit -- IQ is as much a matter of luck as the material wealth of the family we're born into-- we have to live as if individual effort matters and reward the fruits of that effort; we have to motivate achievement. That's true both in school and workplace: good work in school should lead to opportunities to learn more, and ultimately to do responsible work, and good performance at work should lead to more responsibility and the chance to perform more complex tasks.  This necessitates tying GPA to individual performance -- and, to a degree, as the failure of communism has taught us, pay to individual performance. But the latter relationship is not absolute, because each of us also has an interest in being part of a commonwealth, per point 3 above, and because each of gets more than merely financial rewards from work. 

Finally, it irks me that Hanson seems to think that it's hypocritical for students to hold a moral intuition the underlying logic of which they can't readily articulate. When a student says that GPA is "not the same" as monetary reward, that's a moral intuition.  And I bet a lot of them could come up with reasons within a week, or an hour.  Some of them probably considerably better than mine.

McArdle rebuts
Response to McArdle


  1. If income and GPA were related, all the extra hours and responsibilities I've taken on with my job would have led to me making more money. Sadly, that hasn't happened in almost 3 years.

  2. The idea of treating GPA like wealth is so absurd and fallacious that it is hard for people to get their heads around it. GPA is a straightforward application of arithmetic to a set of grades. Grades themselves are invented to describe individual aptitudes. You can't redistribute them without robbing them of meaning. Johnny's aptitude for math can't be redistributed to Billy. To redistribute grades would be to alienate the grade from the individual it purports to describe. That's just destruction of information.

    Wealth can be redistributed. Give ten of Johnny's dollars to Billy and send Billy to the corner store, and Billy can actually get himself a bag of goods. The shopkeeper won't indignantly withhold the goods from Billy because the dollars came from Johnny. The dollars will be fine with the shopkeeper, and he'll give the goods to the kid who forks over the money.

    You can't get away with doing that with grades. The prospective employer who knows Billy has a redistributed GPA will ignore that GPA. It doesn't do him any good if Billy has a B in math if it turns out he can't really crunch numbers.

    I hope that's articulate enough, and I agree with you, the intuitive understanding that you can't redistribute GPA is not invalidated by an inability to explain it well. I wouldn't even call it "moral intuition". It's a logical intuition about what even makes sense to try.

  3. It's also entirely possible for every single student in a course, class year, or school, to get a 4.0. Anne's A does not make Dan's A any less possible. There's no limit on the total resource supply of grades, except when a curve is applied (and in school these days, curves are far rarer than they're believed to be). Money is finite. Wealth consolidates, and it does so geometrically. Earning one A in a class doesn't help you get an A in the next one. Having 100 A's doesn't make the next A more likely. Money makes money. GPA and Money aren't in any way metaphors for each other.

    That said, if I had a 3.999999, and I could help 9,999 poor people earn college degrees by taking a 3.990000, and giving them each .0000001 to bring each of their 1.999999's to 2.0's, I'd do it. If someone really wants to map this absurd GPA notion onto the world of money, that's basically the math at stake.

    The student who gives up their 4.0 for a 3.0, 2.5, or 2.0 loses a lot, which is another reason this whole grade redistribution scenario is so disingenuous. The gazillionaire who is taxed the EXTREME socialist rate of 38.5% under Obama (as opposed to the oh-so-much-lower-and-not-at-all-socialist 35% under Bush....THAT is the difference being contested, really, and inspiring these wingish chain emails, which in turn inspired these JV youtubers) would experience no such loss.

    Thanks for getting this dissection going, Andrew.

  4. Thank you! When Andrew Sullivan posted that video (and comment...) I thought, "Oy, these two things are so not the same on so many levels." Thanks for articulating some of the many ways!

  5. Thanks for taking up this cause. GPA/income are such wildly different things for different purposes that most people are startled by the idea of treating the same. That's surprise, not hypocrisy.

    Actually, I don't see why we wouldn't expect high-performing students to tutor lower-performing students. And isn't that basically redistribution, whatever the mechanism?

  6. I agree that it is unfair to judge the students (or anyone) on what they could think up in an hour. Especially for an issue which people do not ordinarily think about.

    But, now that you have had about a week to think about Hanson's proposal, perhaps you could update your position?

  7. Anon: see update - link at bottom of this post.

  8. Actually, I believe the comaprison to be reasonably on point.

    Both are "results" based upon effort to meet someone elses expectations. Grades are a measure of pleasing one's teachers, earned income is a measure of how well one has pleased one's employer/customer/client. Different professions get rewarded at different scale, but then different schools are also harder or easier to get good grades in.

    The only part of taxable income that doesn't match up is investment income from inherited wealth...students don't usually get much of a boost from their parents grades. Unless we are talking about genetic predisposition to intelligence and character, or any benefit based upon the selection of the educational system, e.g. prep school, university, or social conditioning and expectations. Hmmm? So maybe it isn't that far off either.

    I suspect most objections to this comparison are based on rejecting the premise solely in order to reject the realization that one might be holding inconsistent views of the two redistribution schemes.

  9. there is another point: there are very few (if any) spillovers in grade distribution. In incomes, however, the effects of the efforts of third parties influence (positively or negatively) on one's income in ways he can 't control or measure. My income is not only defined by market factors, but also by the access t public goods, third parties' productivity etc