from the world's big
Let us now stop praising famous men (and women)
What does fame have to do with merit, anyway?
After the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris nearly burned down in April, the French luxury-goods magnate François-Henri Pinault was celebrated for committing €100 million to reconstruct what he called 'this jewel of our heritage' and ushering in a flood of donations from other benefactors and companies.
Though an impressive figure in the abstract, Pinault's commitment reflected only 0.3 per cent of his family fortune. If he instead had the average net wealth for a French household and donated 0.3 per cent of his fortune, his commitment would total about €840. Not an insignificant sum for an average Frenchman, but who would refuse to give that sum if it garnered the praise and notoriety that followed Pinault's donation?
We live in an age of excessive praise for the wealthy and powerful. The upper echelons of society bathe in a sea of honours, awards and celebrity. We see it in the glossy magazines and at the so-called ideas festivals, where billionaires are fawned over for their bons mots. We applaud philanthropists for their largesse, even if their charity will do little ultimate good for society, and even if their conduct in acquiring their fortune was reprehensible. We commend them for dabbling in politics or pushing school reform, before we see any results, and even if we have reason to doubt the good that they will do.
To criticise our praise for the wealthy and powerful as excessive inevitably raises the question of meritocracy. To what extent do we live in a meritocracy, and is that a good or a bad thing? Meritocracy is a form of social organisation that is founded on praise and blame. People signal who deserves power and status by praising them for their character, their talent, their productivity and their actions, and who merits demotion in status and power by blaming them for their vices, their ineptitude and their failings. Insofar as people's assessments of praise and blame are accurate, they will promote those deemed better up in the hierarchy of power and status, and demote those deemed worse down. Better people will do better things with their superior power and status. When the system works, we have an aristocracy – rule by the finest people. Or so thinkers from Aristotle onward have thought.
This system doesn't work and can't work on its own terms. Assessments of praise and blame tend to reflect existing hierarchies of power and status, thereby reifying them. This is because praise and blame have as much to do with the person judging as the person being judged. If everyone in a meritocracy wants to get ahead, assessments of praise and blame will be influenced by whatever helps people to get ahead – namely heaping praise on the powerful and respected, and castigating those without power and status. This is obviously true with meritocracies that most people explicitly reject, such as white supremacy and patriarchy – hierarchies drawn along racial and gender lines. These systems have persisted despite the baseless moral judgments on which they are grounded, because those living within the system are incentivised to see such judgments as legitimate. Meritocracies in general convince those within the system to echo the moral assessments on which they are based as objective and justified, when in fact they are shaped not by objective criteria but by the qualities of the powerful. Praise and blame are ideological blinders that uphold the legitimacy of the meritocratic hierarchy. If we take a more critical look at ourselves and our moral assessments, we will be better able to remove those blinders.
The smog of praise that permeates the upper echelons of society is a product of perverse incentives. As individuals, we tend to praise others and to court praise, because we want to win good will from others and receive confirmation of others' good will. What's more, we have an even stronger incentive to praise people who are wealthy and powerful, because winning their goodwill secures their premium support, and the wealthy and powerful are, in turn, more readily able to court praise from others. The more elite someone is, the more likely he is to crowd-surf on the praise of the many lesser folks seeking his favour. And insofar as our age of massive inequality creates people who are wealthier and more powerful, to that extent will the wave of excessive praise swell. We can even anticipate this tendency generating a negative feedback loop: praise of the wealthy and powerful affirms that they are good people deserving their fortune, which can, in turn, augment their wealth and influence, which thereby attracts even more praise.
The effects of excessive praise on conduct are also worth concern. Praising people, even those who deserve praise, can actually have a negative effect on their behaviour. There are many psychological studies demonstrating that people are susceptible to moral compensation. That is, when people feel that they have engaged in good behaviour, they also feel that it gives them licence to act badly in the future. The converse also holds: when people feel that they have engaged in bad behaviour, they also feel that they should make up for it by acting better in the future. If these studies hold up, they appear to upend the social consequences of praise and blame: praising people excessively can lead them to act badly, while blame puts them on notice and reinforces good behaviour. And insofar as this effect is more likely to influence wealthy and powerful people – those who can, thanks to their resources and influence, do more – it magnifies the harm of their bad conduct.
Meritocracies try to establish objective criteria to justify social hierarchies. Nowadays, entry into the elite often has to do with having the right résumé: Oxbridge or Ivy League degrees, a stint at the best consulting firm or investment bank, service in politics or government, writing a book or giving a TED talk about your work. These résumé items are supposed to establish the talent, judgment and character of the people in question. People with such résumés receive respect and esteem – even though their accomplishments are the predictable consequences of being born into the right family, knowing the right people, and swimming with the current. For the ambitious – and meritocracies feed ambition – these résumé items are primarily credentials for acquiring greater power and status. There is no reason for the public to accept such credentials as being an objectively valid base for praise.
If we want to foster a truly democratic society – a society in which we treat each other as equals – we must rein in such excessive praise and the perverse incentives that encourage it. We should aim for the opposite extreme, toward withholding praise and being more circumspect about the wealthy and powerful, to restore balance. As Justice Louis Brandeis, who witnessed our previous Gilded Age, might have said: 'We may have democracy, or we may have praise showered on the heads of a few, but we can't have both.'
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.