Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Roemer and Supergirl

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, July 10, 2008 | Category: , , , |

bookjacketI don't know how many of you out there have read John E. Roemer's (1998) book Equality of Opportunity, or the article of the same name in Arrow, Bowles, Durlauf (eds, 2000) Meritocracy and Economic Inequality. Anyway, I have been trying to think about his arguments for a while (as I am currently researching this topic) and I have a little hypothetical that I want to test to see if anyone thinks it's valid. First I will discuss Roemer's proposal, then on to my hypothetical.

Roemer first argues that there are two types of equality of opportunity.
  1. the nondiscrimination principle
  2. leveling the playing field
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.He says that much has been written on the former, but not enough (rigorously) on the latter. Roemer argues for an algorithm, of the sort which takes individuals circumstances into account and then partitions them into typesets, where 'type' is meant to be indicative of level of advantage. He then goes on to argue that the individual's level of effort within their type set is what should determine our policy for receiving benefits. Everyone in the top centile of each type should receive similar outcomes. He argues therefore that his algorithm (which he sets up mathematically I should add) would therefore take types into account and provide for each individual contingent on the effort that they choose to expend and reward them accordingly - a just desert if you will. Now, this is a summary, and a poor one at that, but I think that it is quite an interesting proposition. One of the consequences of which is that disadvantaged individuals will require dramatically more compensation in order to get them to an equivalent level of say education as those who are historically advantaged. Note though that he argues that his EOp mechanism should apply in terms of admissions to schools, universities, etc, but should not apply for professions where a specific level of excellence is required (such as say, surgery, dentistry, high level physics and mathematics). At this point the nondiscrimination principle should be implemented.

[Aside: he comments how this makes him enemies on the right and left either because he goes too far, or not far enough]

Anyway, considering how it is effort that needs to be expended in order for an individual to be rewarded I came up with the following hypothetical which baffled me a bit.

Consider a hypothetical individual who is, by virtue of her circumstances (genes, family, etc) excellent at everything. So excellent, in fact, that the effort required by her to perform any task to some pre-defined level of excellence or achievement (say building a car, or coding a computer program) is absolutely minimal. So minimal in fact that it is indistinguishable from effortlessness. Because this person, by virtue of their abilities (qua circumstances) cannot expend more effort, say to the equivalence of others in a different type, how will they be remunerated or rewarded?

Roemer's rule for allocating them to university, employment, 'future earnings capacity' would not allocate them (or at least allocate them to the lowest positions) because they expend (virtually) no effort (or epsilon's worth of effort).

Moreover, as the individual is unique, i.e. they cannot be classified in terms of the given type set, how do we classify them in terms of a decile of effort? Do they necessarily fall in the last decile of some imagined group of super-individuals? Surely that would be inaccurate because, if this group existed, none of them would be able to spend more than (epsilon or) near zero effort.

Any ideas? Am I just crazy, or because this would only be a problem for superpeople is it not worth considering in the political philosophy of real people? I suppose this is just a variant on the 'not rewarding people who are talented' problem, but the issue for me here is that even if they wanted to they (superpeople) couldn't expend more effort. Conundrum. But quite possibly a trivial one.

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