Showing posts with label status. Show all posts
Showing posts with label status. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why much success comes with a slice of good luck

How important is luck in monetary success? A lot more than a lot of successful people are willing to admit – even to themselves.

Is luck as important as hard work in becoming successful? No – but, in the end, yes.

These are important questions – we ponder them often – that economists rarely bother to study. Except for one of my favourite economists, Robert Frank, of Cornell University in upstate New York. His new book is Success and Luck: Good fortune and the myth of meritocracy.

The case for believing that success is due overwhelmingly to talent and hard work – something every successful person wants to believe – is simple. Leaving aside a few lottery winners and rich heirs, almost every materially successful person is someone with ability who's worked hard for what they've got.

But the weakness in that argument is equally apparent: the many talented and hard-working people who haven't amassed much wealth.

What separates the two groups is good fortune. Some talented and hard-working people have enjoyed the additional benefit of a lucky break or two, some haven't, or have suffered unmerited setbacks of one kind or another.

Some have had the good fortune simply to have avoided any misfortune. And, of course, there are talented, hardworking, lucky people who aren't all that outwardly successful because they haven't given material success a high priority. (Don't bother feeling sorry for them – they've probably enjoyed far more personal satisfaction than those who measure their worth in dollars.)

It's easy for us to forget how much our success is owed to good luck. Everyone living has been born into the world at its most prosperous point. Everyone born in Australia starts with an enormous advantage over most other people in the world, in terms of free schooling and healthcare, freedom to choose their own path and freedom from predation.

When we joke about the importance of choosing the right parents, we acknowledge the role of inheritance in influencing future success.

Even when our parents have no great wealth to pass on, a big part of intelligence is inherited and academic success is greatly influenced by whether your parents were readers and valued education.

I've long believed that the example set by parents produces hardworking children.

Frank has no desire to undervalue talent or discourage hard work. Of course they play a major part in success. Nor is he opposed to meritocracy, where jobs go to the most able candidate.

His point is just that, for success, talent and hard work are, as they say at university, "necessary but not sufficient". Those who "got there on merit" shouldn't forget the lucky breaks they've had.

"Chance events are more likely to be decisive in any competition as the number of contestants increases," Frank argues. That's because winning a competition with a large number of contestants requires that almost everything goes right.

This, in turn, means that even when luck counts for only a trivial part of overall performance, there's rarely a winner who wasn't also very lucky.

In the topical case of athletics, luck can come in the form of wind. It would be stupid to deny that anyone winning a world record in the 100 metres, the 100-metre hurdles, the long jump or the triple jump was both physically gifted and had done years of training.

But Frank notes that of the eight current world records (men's and women's) seven occurred in the presence of a tailwind and none with a headwind.

To show the importance of luck even when it's only a small factor, he uses a computer to conduct a numerical simulation.

Say there are 100,000 participants in a contest where luck counts for just 2 per cent of performance, with ability counting for 49 per cent and effort for 49 per cent. For each contestant, the computer draws a number at random separately for each of the three components of their total performance.

The computer repeated this game many times (just as repeated tossing of a coin brings the result closer to 50/50).

The average luck score of the winners was 90 out of 100. And 78 per cent of winners did not have the highest combined ability and effort scores.

But if luck plays such an important role in success, why do the successful so often want to deny it? Frank offers two explanations, one charitable and one not.

We downplay the role of luck so as to motivate ourselves to try hard. When I wish Year 12 economics students good luck in the exams, I sometimes add: "You know how to be lucky? Make your own. The harder you work, the better your luck."

But there's often another, less worthy reason for denying our debt to good fortune. We use it to sanctify our wealth and justify our reluctance to pay high rates of income tax.

I'm well off because I made the right choices, studied when I could have played, saved when I could have spent and worked damn hard. Those people in the outer suburbs are poor because they didn't work and sacrifice the way I did.

I earned all I've got and it's quite unfair to tax me extra to give handouts to people who're too lazy or undisciplined to do what I've done.

That's why it's so important for successful people to acknowledge their good fortune.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Students pay for status under uni fee rise

With the Senate as unco-operative as it has become, it's not at all certain Education Minister Christopher Pyne's proposal to deregulate university fees will become a reality. But if it does it will involve harnessing the university status drive to help balance the budget.

The government's plan is to allow the universities to set their own undergraduate tuition fees for new students from January 2016. But this would be accompanied by a cut averaging 20 per cent in the government's contribution towards the cost of courses.

Joe Hockey has argued that fee control is holding back our unis, stopping them competing with the best overseas.

"Australia should have at least one university in the top 20 in the world, and more in the top 100," he said.

So the economic rationalists' claim that fee deregulation would make the unis more efficient is being combined with a status argument: we need to raise our top unis' rankings on the various international league tables.

What's the link between fees and higher international status? Allowing our top, research-oriented "sandstone" unis to charge much higher fees would allow them to divert more funds to their research effort (probably including paying higher salaries to attract higher-status foreign researchers), the thing that would do most to boost their international rankings.

This is the very motive for the sandstone (Group of Eight) unis' vigorous support for fee deregulation.

Both the proponents and the opponents of fee deregulation assume that the immediate fee increase needed to allow all unis to at least recover the cost of the reduction in the government's contribution to course costs would be just the first of many.

This, I have no doubt, is the main motive for the purse-string departments' advocacy of fee deregulation: giving the unis freedom to raise their fees whenever they want to will allow the government to continue to reduce its own funding of them - not just for teaching costs but also for research via the Australian Research Council.

The fact is, successive governments have been reducing their funding support for unis for decades. Although total spending on universities as a percentage of gross domestic product in Australia is about average among the advanced economies, by 2004 the proportion paid by government was third lowest. Fee deregulation would allow it to go a lot lower.

I don't doubt the econocrats are genuine in their instinctive belief that de facto privatisation of our unis would increase the competition between them, making them more efficient and improving the quality of service to students.

But this motivation would come a distant second to reducing the unis' drain on the budget. And I doubt the econocrats have given any serious consideration to the many instances of "market failure" involved in partially deregulating a government-owned oligopoly with considerable market power.
The scope for stuff-ups - "unintended consequences" - is enormous.

If the tertiary education "market" did operate in roughly textbook fashion, with individual unis lacking pricing power, competition between them would greatly limit their combined ability to raise their fees very far.

And yet it's clear the government and the sandstone universities are confident of their ability to impose big fee increases over a few years.

Why? Because they know that - though it's assumed away in the textbook model - the higher-status unis would be able to get away with making students pay for that higher status along with the cost of their tuition.

The tuition fees unis charge foreign students have long been deregulated. They vary widely between unis, with the sandstones able to charge a lot more than the "red bricks" (as the Poms would call them). As well, the level of fees charged varies by course, with those for higher-paid professions higher than for lesser-paid, regardless of differences in the actual costs of delivering such courses.

The econocrats assume deregulated fees for local students would follow the same patterns, but that's not guaranteed. There ain't a lot of precedent for this radical experiment.

Since the buyers' knowledge of the relative quality of degrees is far from perfect, there's a high risk the lesser-status unis would hike their fees by more than expected precisely to avoid sending a signal that their product was of lesser quality.

The non-sandstone unis don't like the sound of all this, but they won't openly oppose it because they don't want to publicly acknowledge their lesser status.

Meanwhile, some status-seeking students at sandstone unis could be obliged to pay not only the full cost of their tuition but also to cross-subsidise their uni's research effort.

Monday, November 17, 2014

University status comes at a high price

Has it occurred to you that universities are fundamentally about the pursuit of status? Almost every aspect of their activities focuses on the acquisition of rank. And Christopher Pyne's proposed "reform" of universities is about harnessing the status drive to help balance the budget.

Ostensibly, unis exist to add to the store of human knowledge and to educate the brightest of the rising generation. All very virtuous.

When you think about it, however, you see that unis are about the pursuit of certification, standing, position and prestige. The main way they earn their revenue is by granting superior status to young people seeking to enter the workforce.

In theory, a degree proves your possession of knowledge in a certain area. Often in practice it certifies little more than that you're smart enough and persistent enough to have passed a lot of exams. Either way, try climbing the employment ladder without one.

This makes universities gatekeepers granting access to the good, well-paying jobs in the economy. Which gives them a kind of monopoly power.

In the old days the government paid them to teach, assess and certify young people; these days the young people are required, to an increasing extent, to buy their qualifications directly, making them customers as much as pupils.

Such is the strength of the unis' monopoly over access to the good jobs that most young people would be prepared to pay huge fees and take on very large debts before they resigned themselves to a lifetime of low socio-economic status.

The status symbols issued by unis are themselves subject to a well-understood system of ranking: doctorates rank above master's degrees, with thesis masters outranking course-work masters. Then come bachelor's degrees, with honours degrees higher than pass degrees and first-class honours higher than second class. Not forgetting the ultimate status symbol: being awarded a university medal.

But uni degrees are subject to a second, informal status ranking: employers (and parents) tend to be more impressed by degrees awarded by the older, bigger "sandstone" universities than those from younger, outer-suburban or regional unis.

While in the public's mind the unis' existence is justified by their teaching, few people become academics because of a burning desire to teach. Academics want to do research and, though some become good teachers and enjoy teaching, for the most part teaching is regarded as an unfortunate distraction.

The unis try to conceal the conflict between their priority (research) and the public's (teaching) by claiming that academics at the forefront of their discipline's research effort make the best teachers.

Students know this is rubbish. It pretends good teaching doesn't require possession of teaching skills and forgets that most undergraduate teaching has little to do with the teacher's super-specialty.

Academics know the fast track to the top comes from the quality and quantity of their research, as evidenced by their publication records. Promotion assessments - moving people up the status ladder from lecturer to full professor - give little weight to teaching, contribution to public debate or even the writing of textbooks.

The universities themselves are driven by their desire to raise their status relative to other unis by increasing the quantity and quality of their research. The government publishes regular rankings of our universities and their faculties, largely determined by their research output.

Universities threaten to sack academics who fail to reach research output quotas. They urge staff to compete for government research grants, granted partly on the basis of previously published research. Staff who win grants are rewarded with money they can use to pay part-timers to take over their teaching obligations.

The quality of published research is determined largely by the reputation of the academic journal that published it. All journals are ranked, with American and British journals scoring many points and Australian journals scoring few points.

(Since international journals are reluctant to publish research into Australian issues, this means our government uses our taxes to fund a universities-designed scheme that discourages our academics from doing empirical research on problems of particular relevance to us.)

In recent years the eight sandstone unis' greatest motivation has been to raise their position on a couple of regular international rankings of universities. To this end they've come increasingly to offer senior positions to American and British academics rather than locals, since the foreigners are more likely to get themselves published in more prestigious journals.

Some unis' drive to lift their international reputation involves a policy of never hiring lecturers whose highest qualification is a PhD they themselves granted. Cultural cringe, anyone?

How does this obsession with status-seeking tie in with the Abbott government's plan to deregulate uni fees? Watch this space.