Economic moral inversion

Alex Tabarrok with a thought-provoking post on the stark difference in evaluating actions based on intention versus outcome. The real world example: Evan Thornley, founder of LookSmart, admitted he hired more women because of the market inefficiency for their talents.

“Call me opportunistic; I thought I could get better people with less competition because we were willing to understand the skills and capabilities that many of these woman had,” Thornley said.

Thornley went on to say that by hiring women, he got better-qualified employees to whom he was able to give more responsibility. “And [they were] still often relatively cheap compared to what we would’ve had to pay someone less good of a different gender,” he concluded. To illustrate his point he showed a slide that said: “Women: Like Men, Only Cheaper.”

As you might expect, his comments were met with outrage. Tabarrok believes the outrage comes from judging Thornley on an intention-based heuristic. Looked at from an economist's consequentialist perspective, Tabarrok feels Thornley was judged too harshly.

If we judge actions by consequences, however, Thornley should be encouraged, perhaps even praised. Accepting for the sake of argument the truth of the story, it’s Thornley who has overcome prejudice (his or his society’s), recognized the truth of equality and taken entrepreneurial action to do well while doing good. It’s Thornley who is broadcasting the fact of equality to the world and encouraging others to do likewise. Most importantly, the consequence of Thornley’s actions are to increase the demand for women executives thereby increasing their wages.

Women’s wages aren’t pushed down by employers who hire women but by employers who don’t hire women. So why does Thornley get the blame? Instead of denouncing Thornley, whose actions push up the wages of women he hires and the wages of the women he does not hire, why not ask, How can we encourage employers not to overlook talented women and minorities?

For those wanting to break the bonds of discrimination whether they be women, blacks or Dalits, lower wages and a competitive market aren’t the cost of discrimination but the cure. It’s the lower wages that give employers an incentive to overcome prejudice, seek out talent, and experiment with new ways of doing business. And it is the self-interested pursuit of profit that is the surest means to increase the wages of the unjustly ignored and overlooked.

I'm sympathetic to both sides. On the one hand, a free market economy can be a natural corrective to many forms of discrimination when the discrimination happens to be economically inefficient.

On the other hand, let's not fit Thornley for a saint's cap. In this day and age, especially in the U.S., I don't perceive a huge societal retaliation threat for paying women equal pay for equal work. It's not as if Thornley was coming out against slavery in the Deep South when slavery was at its height. He clearly states that he believed the women were doing not just equal work but better work. So why not do the right thing and just pay them commensurate to their value as he saw it? I'm hesitant to laud someone for just being a smart business person, a rational economic actor.


A supercut of Joe Biden's greatest hits at the Senate swearing-in ceremonies yesterday. There's a fine line between charm and harassment, and damn if Biden doesn't dance it like a pro (hat tip to @kenwuesq)


I finally read the Adam Green article about pickpocket master Apollo Robbins in this week's New Yorker. It is fantastic. This video of one of Robbins' pickpocket routines, one mentioned in the article, is low-res but gives you an idea of his technique of manipulating the audience's attention. Related, if you have time and Hulu Plus, watch Bresson's Pickpocket. Also great.


Did MIchael Jackson's Thriller sell 100 million copies? After Thriller, what is the number two selling album of all time? Can any album hope to match any of these giants again? Surprising answers here.


This is an old article, but until recently I hadn't renewed my NYTimes subscription in months. Humans have long quested after eternal life, but one creature has already solved it: the immortal jellyfish. It ages, then like Benjamin Button, it grows young again, until it is back where it started. And then it reverses course yet again, in an endless cycle.

Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to survive, and proliferate, in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting.

"A great gelatin consciousness everlasting" is a beautiful image, like something from a Miyazaki film.

Less an article about how close we are to harnessing the immortal jellyfish's secrets for human needs than a study of the peculiar Japanese scientist who has made that organism his life's work.


Also from that issue of the NYTimes Magazine was an article about a man who was inspired by his autistic son to start a company employing autistic adults. Of particular interest:

The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows. Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker’s greatest skill, not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts.

Many, including Cowen, have theorized that Sherlock Holmes was a high-functioning autistic, modeled on another man who may have had functional autism, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. What was TV's House but an updated version of Holmes and arguably also a doctor who, thanks to a group of people who tolerated his eccentricities, was able to leverage his peak skill to great effect?

When tech companies talk about whether to hire brilliant assholes, they're trying to evaluate whether they can leverage that person's peak skill while shielding the rest of the organization from the collateral damage. Often that person must be put in a silo, quarantined from coworkers, like Hannibal Lecter in a glass cage, working in isolation.