Merit and Morals: WEF Davos Agenda Panel With Prof. Michael Sandel

Being on the other side of the Earth from the majority of partipants at the WEF Davos Agenda, I fell behind on the video feeds of their discussions.

I combed through the remainder of talks the following week and I found very interesting this discussion between moderator Ngaire Woods and panellist Michael Sandel “Renewing The Moral Foundations Of A Post-COVID World“.

Woods stated that in large part the discussion concentrated on the ideas that Sandel, a Professor at Harvard University, presented in his book “The Tyranny Of Merit”, published September 2020, and also in this TED talk.

(I have ordered the book which has not yet arrived, but I have a backlog of reading – I am currently reading “In Defence of Open Society” by George Soros and “COVID-19: The Great Reset” by Schwabb and Malleret, the latter to see how closely the ideas fit with my essay published several months before it “The Great Reset”)

The essence of Prof. Sandel’s views is that the people considered successful in our modern society do not comprehend the degree of luck that they experienced in their “success”, leading to a humility deficit from the “winners” and a pervasive view that underprivileged “losers” are responsible for their challenged life circumstance which even they believe.

I found a great deal of common ground with Prof. Sandel including in my writing about my own career, especially in comments from several years ago before launching MacroEdgo, and in other relevant musings in various places and in my essays including “Your Life: Something the elites have always been prepared to sacrifice for their ends“, “The Magic Sauce Of American Economic Dynamism Is Not Based On Personal Greed“, “People Before Money“, “What Really Scares The Global Elite“, “Why The Rush Messrs. Morrison And Frydenberg“, and “How Might Milton Friedman Respond To The COVID-19 Pandemic“. 

In actual fact my musings were very similar at times as evidenced, for example, in this writing from February 2018 which I reposted early at MacroEdgo in “Smarties To Exploit Monetarily (STEM): Australia does not value human capital“:

I made [this point] to my son’s teachers when I accompanied their class to the Queensland primary school leadership forum two years ago [in 2016]. (Now being a stay at home dad, I am fortunate to have these wonderful opportunities to help out teachers, the children and my sons.)

An amazing assemblage of “winners” was put together to inspire the children – including the young scientist that was in the running to go to Mars – and they were all keen to share the secrets of their “success”, many even having the humility to admit that fortune was indeed a factor. But it was clear that none truly understood just how big a factor it was (perhaps it is only natural to focus on what we actually contributed to our “success”).

I suggested to the teachers that we only heard from the “winners”, and while their messages were very worthwhile, the children would also do well from hearing from some of the many equally talented and equally resilient people that for any number of reasons did not quite “make it”. The teachers gave polite affirmation to the comment, but it’s probably something that one can not fully appreciate unless you can truly understand it from personal experience or from observing it at close hand.

And in my Coronavirus Update published 18 March 2020, just one week after the WHO “made the assessment that COVID-19 could be characterised as a pandemic“, I stated:

Finally, I might make mention of sports stars. I understand the arguments being made about them being concerned about their families as well as their own health if they are going about their usual lives routinely and playing professional sport. But there are two points here. That is no different to those people working in vital services who are at far higher risk. What is more, generally they get paid much, much less than professional sports people in high profile sports. The simple reality is that sports people are able to earn such high incomes because they provide distraction from the modern reality for people. And there has never been a greater time for the need of distraction as we are about to experience most of the developed world in lockdown. In the sport that I follow most closely, rugby league, in big matches they talk about “going to war”. I really think these people need to give very careful consideration to why it is that they have such a privileged position within our society. And I will say this, if in this hour of need they do not find the courage to play the role for which they are so handsomely rewarded, then I think once this is all over we need to make some major changes. They should not be taking home income that is many, many multiples of the income of people who make real differences in the lives of people while putting their own in jeopardy. Undoubtedly the revenue is there in the sports, but there needs to be some sort of equalization taxation so that that income flows through to real heroes of society.

Prof. Sandel believes that the febrile politics of the moment has its origins in this winners versus losers mentality. I agree, but there is also an element of belief amongst the disadvantaged that the “game” never was fair for various reasons.

I largely agree with Prof. Sandel that this competition is unhealthy and in my writing I tend to refer to it as “toxic aspiration” rather than tyrranical merit.

Prof. Sandel made the point in his WEF panel, as he does in his TED talk, that at Harvard there are more students from just the top 1% of wealthy US households than from all of the bottom 50%, highlighting the benefits that accrue to the elites and entrench their inter-generational advantage. Obviously I agree strongly with this view.

In “Your Life: Something the elites have always been prepared to sacrifice for their ends” I made the point that the elites that I respected “are those who authentically understand the privilege that they have enjoyed, usually from birth by virtue of the luck of being born in a developed country or into middle class even if they consider themselves ‘self-made’, as well as respect and appreciate relationships with other human beings especially the people who loved and guided them.”  I elaborated a little further on what is admirable behaviour amongst elites in  “How Might Milton Friedman Respond To The COVID-19 Pandemic“.

Where I departed slightly from Prof. Sandel’s views was his discussion of “merit” and meritocracy where he seemed to suggest that the advantage that those in the top one percent of wealth received ended at their acceptance into university as if merit then took over as the main determinant of their “success” from that point on.

If this is an accurate perception of Prof. Sandel’s views then they are entirely analogous to this depiction of the situation of advantage and disadvantage in America, “The $100 race” – an exercise that I deeply appreciate and often talk about and/or mention in my commentary – where after the advantaged are given greater and greater advantage dependent on their own personal circumstances, being more of a head start in a sprint race, and then the race is run freely without further advantage applied through the race.

It is a brilliant demonstration of the challenges disadvantaged young Americans face in their lives, making the point that irrespective of those disadvantages these people still need to run their own race to the best of their abilities. It also demonstrates to the advantaged young Americans how much fortune has favoured them even before their race began, no matter how much they wish to claim their successes as being due entirely or mostly to their own unique combination of hard and smart work.

While it is a good representation, and can teach both the advantaged and disadvantaged important lessons, the truth is that is not a perfect model.

In both cases – the $100 race and Prof. Sandel’s example of meritocracy – it needs to be reflected that the relative advantage does not work to a certain point after which outcomes are determined on merit from innate characters and learned skills. Just as the system was not a genuine meritocracy through to that point, the same factors act to ensure that merit after that point is not the determining factor in outcomes.

If somebody has an enormous advantage on being accepted into a prestigious university based on family connections, those same connections will work to their advantage for their entire life.

Throughout societies we know prejudice and bias acts to affect outcomes on groups of people for entire lives.

I discussed this in “Quotas Are Necessary To Address Workplace Diversity“, with the following concept diagrams (of the level of positions within a profession with the very broad base being the lowest level positions and the peak being the very highest positions that can be attained), and I pick up again on the theme in the companion essay to this one “Racial Prejudice And Bias: A matter of degrees” which I will post imminently.

Advantaged Subgroup

Entire Group

Disadvantage Subgroup

For the $100 race to accurately reflect this lifelong advantage, after everybody was advanced (i.e. handicapped) according to the relative privilege they were born into and experienced in their youth, the disadvantaged would be hobbled or carry additional weight to varying degrees while the advantaged would run with various strength rocket boosters fitted to shoes which added to their favourable situation through the entire race.

As I reflected on this during drafting I realised what a good model the children’s board game “Snakes and Ladders” (“Chutes and Ladders” in some countries) was for the real life situation. This was confirmed as I researched the game. 

From Wikipedia:

The game is a simple race based on sheer luck, and it is popular with young children.[2] The historic version had its roots in morality lessons, on which a player’s progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes)

The wiki does a great job of explaining the odds of the game:

Any version of snakes and ladders can be represented exactly as an absorbing Markov chain, since from any square the odds of moving to any other square are fixed and independent of any previous game history.[5] The Milton Bradley version of Chutes and Ladders has 100 squares, with 19 chutes and ladders. A player will need an average of 39.2 spins to move from the starting point, which is off the board, to square 100. A two-player game is expected to end in 47.76 moves with a 50.9% chance of winning for the first player.[20] These calculations are based on a variant where throwing a six does not lead to an additional roll; and where the player must roll the exact number to reach square 100 and if they overshoot it their counter does not move.

Again there is the same shortcoming, however, and it is highlighted in the description of probabilities here, “from any square the odds of moving to any other square are fixed and independent of any previous game history.” In real life this is not the case. For example, by changing only the name on a resume – indicative of different ethnicities – the likelihood of being selected to progress further in the selection process for a job can be very significantly altered.

Thus we must recognise that, for the standard “Snakes and Ladders” game as an analogy for lives lived, there are a multitude of different boards which we play on. The most advantaged in society have a board with a greater proportion of more positive life events – i.e. more and longer ladders. People born into disadvantage have a board which has proportionately more and larger snakes or chutes and fewer ladders to reflect the reduced odds of “success”.

What board we play on is determined before our birth.

That is not merit or even our own fortune, for those who like to believe statements like “we make our own fortune”.

As I reflected further on this I realised that this could be reflected in a modified “Snake and Ladders” board with the slight problem that there is no natural end to the game because there is no common goal – or square – that we all arrive on when the goal relates to “success” as measured by wealth. That is fitting, however, because all of our paths are different and we all reach different endpoints. Moreover it allows for infinite wealth because that becomes the reality for many fortunates or advantaged in that no matter how much “success ” at accumulating wealth is achieved they still are driven to achieve more.

On this board, the game starts at -10 months reflecting that chance exists at the moment life is conceived. There are an infinite number of squares because the vertical axis (“success towards wealth”) is infinite, but as we all know, the horizontal axis of time (“age”) is finite. Of course the game progresses from left to right – as yet we have found no wormholes to take us back in age! 

On conception the player immediately moves to a square, but unlike in the traditional game, the higher your position on the board – i.e. the more fortune you have experienced – the more likely you are to experience even more good fortune. The higher up the board your trajectory the higher the proportion and the longer the ladders are and the fewer, shorter snakes or chutes, increasing the probability of a rapid climb. And so on it goes upwards towards infinity.

We know that children conceived to parents in the poorest countries are far more likely to suffer adverse outcomes from the moment of conception and in some countries infant mortality is such that 10% of babies die before 5 years of age.

Below are a few stylised examples of lifepaths on this modified “Snakes and Ladders” board. First is a stylised indication of the average middle class American born around 1960 (note this has became an increasingly less common pathway as the middle class has been hollowed out with the trajectory of more moving lower rather than higher). Perhaps we can say at that line the snakes/chutes and ladders are as per the standard board, and as indicated on the figure, the further above or below this line the more the proportions shift in a favourable or unfavourable manner. Note that all healthy babies born in the developed world start out at or above the line on the x-axis because of the societal resources available, whereas only the healthy babies born to the most wealthy in the developing world are above that line.

Following are examples of life paths, including for:

I did not know anything about Bezos’ early life before reading this, and while his achievements are commendable given the challenges he faced very early in life, together with his mother, nothing there changed my views on the validity of these arguments. He may be an extremely intelligent and driven guy, but he is also the ultimate “winner” in the “success towards wealth” game – being the wealthiest person on Earth at present – and one only needs to wonder how an unborn baby, with all the same potential as he had, would progress if conceived to a poor rural Angolan family. 

Can you just begin to imagine how much human potential is lost globally because of inequality?

While these paths are presented as lines on a graph, the reader should consider that if they zoomed into those lines or elsewhere on the board – as if increasing the magnification of a microscope – then the intricate grid with snakes/chutes and ladders would be revealed (whereas on a microscope slide with greater magnification the view can change from a whole invertebrate animal, then to organ systems and finally to individual cells).

Of course there are very many facets to a human life, and in many ways that is what Prof. Sandel alludes to, as do I in placing “success” within inverted commas. One of those concepts is happiness and some nations are even attempting to account for this in their decision-making.

If a third dimension or axis were added – for “contentment with life” (in my view a deeper appreciation for life than simply “happiness”) – research suggests that the relationship between it and “success towards wealth” breaks down rapidly above a certain level of wealth which is further evidence that this competition and “toxic aspiration” is indeed unhealthy. But that is another conversation.

Finally, Prof. Sandel speaks to the need for renewing the dignity of work and placing it at the centre of our politics. The quote (above) from my Coronavirus Update on 18 March shows that I, too, am passionate on this point. I certainly agree that dignified work has been an important factor for humanity to this point in our development and it will remain so. I believe, however, that the changes that humanity has reached with the fourth industrial revolution is going to affect our relationship with work as artificial intelligence and automated equipment increasingly carries out necessary functions for societies. I discussed this in detail in “Theme 6: More Time For Personal Fulfillment” on my Investment Themes page.

This enormous change is and will continue to necessitate a major adjustment in society in how we contribute and what are our perceptions of those contributions. After reading Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia For Realists” I immediately became a supporter of the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and I believe it must be central to affording a dignified life for all.

I am a little concerned, however, that the attachment of those on the left of politics with the dignity of work meme may cause them to misunderstand these profound changes . Humanity does not need more work for work’s sake out of anxiety that people will not cope with the change. Societies need to embrace the concept of participation including personal reflection and development, as well as other altruistic activities. My experience is that this inflexibility creates a bias against and rejection of UBI by many on the left which I find disappointing as it could be an integral aspect of inclusion in a dignified society.

In doing my ‘due diligence’ prior to publishing this post – my new practise since writing “The Great Reset: Momentum builds with the World Economic Forum agenda” – I learned that others have associated the boardgame “Snakes and Ladders” with Prof Sandel’s views. The theme was incorporated into this animation and it was the title of this book review but it was behind a paywall so I could not read what was written. These are the only two instances of association that I identified in my brief Google search.

I consider Prof. Sandel’s to be a significant contribution to understanding contemporary politics and socioeconomics. 

“The Fallacy of Merit” could very well have been chosen as the title for his book and related works, but to do so would miss the point that Prof. Sandal’s view is that a perfect meritocracy, if achieveable, should not be the end goal for society.

As an avid Bloomberg viewer the repetition of their advertisements can grow tiresome  and at present the interview between David Rubenstein and Oprah Winfrey has been overplayed. It grates with me for one reason in particular. I have a generally positive view of Winfrey and, without knowing very many specific details about her life, I have a vague perception that she overcame significant personal hurdles to achieve her success which allows me to relate to the general admiration western society has for her. Moreover, there is no doubting she has used her enormous profile to advance many important issues especially relating to women and civil rights.

Rubenstein encourages Winfrey to talk about her early career as a journalist, and Winfrey recounts how her best friend thought it was great that at 22 years of age she was earning $22,000 and excitedly suggests that she might be earning $25,000 when she is 25. Winfrey turns to the audience and sarcastically says “that would be great, I’d be earning around 60 by now – 62”. 

This suggests that Winfrey has lost some connection to the reality of life for the majority of Americans. In 2018 the median income of a 3 person American household was $74,600 meaning that more than half of all American families, many working more than 1 job per adult in the household, and raising a child, was earning less than $75,000.

For me this supports the views of Prof. Sandel but it goes even further to say that in a society where it is difficult to achieve financial security, and so success at building wealth is venerated, even those that overcame challenges to be very successful can lose connection with those struggling to have a dignified life and consequently lose (some of) their humility.

Of course, if I, myself, harbour insecurities over my own career – which I probably do – then this will serve to lower my threshold for annoyance at these comments by some degree – though my wife agrees with me, also 🙂  (and there’s a veiled reference to my upcoming post).

The ideas that Prof. Sandel shares are powerful and provide an excellent reference point, amongst others, to contribute towards the fairer and more sustainable, diverse and inclusive communities that humanity desperately needs to emerge from The Great Reset era on a surer footing.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of dignified work for all, along with fair pay and recognition for it, I also recognise that the changes that humanity is currently experiencing through the fourth industrial revolution will likely decrease the importance of work in our feelings of connection and contribution to society. Other sources of connection and participation will need to increase in significance within a supportive policy framework. 

Further to Prof. Sandel’s appeal for a “more generous public life”, the concept of “dignity” must apply to all our lives, in toto, overarched by political policy that promotes respect for the contributions that all current and previous human beings play in all our lives. 

To achieve that globally we must act locally. In doing so we will show that finally “we have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community”, the vision President Roosevelt was leading humanity towards as World War II was concluding. 

Gained value from these words and ideas? Consider supporting my work at GoFundMe

© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

%d bloggers like this: