Nation of Beancounters

The question is, do you deserve it?

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on May 1, 2011

Robin Hanson show a video in which students are shown a proposal to redistribute Grade Point Averages from the “rich” (High GPA students) to the “poor” (Low GPA students). The students were apparently awkward about articulating why it’s okay to redistribute income but not grades. Apparently, this demonstrates that people have contradictory beliefs.

Robin Hanson is (of course) correct to say that people aren’t good at expressing why they have the opinions that they do. Elocution is not learnt overnight and most people don’t bother. Nonetheless, I’ve heard the argument “if you want to redistribute, why stop at income?” used as an attack on redistribution before and I think it fails at trying to demonstrate a contradiction.

Most of us believe that if a person has earned something, he deserves to keep it. So if a person’s reward (be it money or grades or awards) is a result of “deserving” factors – his hardwork, intelligence, creativity etc – it’s not unfair for him to deny others access to it. If on the other hand, he has earned it through “undeserving” factors – luck, cheating, sabotage – we believe it should be taken away from him.

Thus the students believe that people “deserve” the grades they earn, therefore object to taking it away from those who have earned them to those who haven’t. It appears that the students believe that people who have high incomes don’t “deserve” them. They weren’t more hard working or productive than the rest of us but simply luckier (born in the right families, caught the right producers eye at just the right time) or maybe even dishonest.

Your position on redistribution of income depends on the degree to which you agree with the statement “people who have high incomes deserve them”. If you agree with it, you’d oppose progressive taxation. If you don’t, you’d support progressive taxes (presumably as long as efficiency is too badly hit and we’re on the happy side of the Laffer curve).

My own position on the subject is “no comment”. I intend to keep it that way untill I find some compelling evidence/argument from either side. I will say, however, that the answer will be context-dependant. The statement will be more true for the USA than Nigeria. It will be more true of Mumbai than Lucknow. It will be more true of chemical engineering than acting.

Additional points:

1. Across India, lower academic demands are applied to people who are from “backward” castes or tribes for admissions to colleges etc. This is mostly an effort to improve their life outcomes but one could argue since individuals from wealthy, urban backgrounds had access to better schools, coaching classes, free time etc that people from these background don’t therefore marks don’t reflect the intelligence, commitment etc that are what we are actually trying to measure. Thus some kind of “redistribution” seems warranted.

However, the proper solution to this would be to measure the “gap” (more on this later) and add these to the marks to the marks secured by all students with a particular socio-economic-gender background. Population-based quotas, the actual process being used, are a ridiculously crude tool and seem more driven by politics than anything else.

2. Arnold Kling says,

I was curious to see this exercise [propose redistribution] tried in other contexts. Ask government officials about a proposal to redistribute power, so that voters get to make more budget decisions directly. Ask Ivy League university presidents about a proposal to redistribute college endowments. Ask Ivy League professors about a proposal to redistribute academic status.

These people are supposed to be more articulate and rigorous in their thinking – so this would indeed be a fun excercise.

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