Talk Show Appearance

A few weeks ago, I got contacted by “The Point,” a weekly online panel discussion show put out by the Young Turks. The format of the show is that an expert delivers a “point” on some issue of the day, and then the panel discusses it for 15 minutes or so (with 3 points to a 45-minute show). They asked me to contribute a “point” about lotteries. The reason they asked me was because one of the panelists, Walter Kirn, had recently written an article on Obama’s decision to raffle off a dinner to a randomly-selected campaign donor. See–

http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/104235/suckerball-obama-celebrity-fundraising-lottery

I originally tried making a point specifically about Obama’s lottery, but the producer of the show wanted a more general point about lotteries. The resulting show is online:

I’m at the start of the second segment (about 18 minutes into the show). The show has been up for a couple of weeks, but I’ve been traveling, and only had the time to watch it yesterday. The good news is that they give a plug both to my book and to Equality by Lot (in the closing credits). The bad news is that the discussion of my point is complete garbage. None of these idiots seem to have even heard of lotteries before me. I think the hostess might even think I invented the idea of allocating goods by lot! I plan to drop them a line, but you might want to make a few comments on Youtube.

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11 Responses

  1. Added a direct link to the show. Yes – unfortunately rather irrelevant discussion. The attitude of the first speaker (the guy on the right) – instinctive elitism (“Why don’t we choose our CEOs by lottery?! That’s just giving up!) – is typical, I think, of the liberal mindset.

    On a more general note: The entire format of the show leaves little room for intelligent discussion. Quite typical of elite-controlled mass media.

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  2. The main take-home point from the discussion is that it’s much easier to make the positive case for the political use of the lot as a form of descriptive representation, as opposed to the negative argument for keeping the distribution process for scarce resources impartial. It would be interesting to see how the discussion would have gone if Peter had made this the focus of his presentation. It’s unfortunate that these two distinct uses of the lottery have been conflated (Peter even arguing that the case for descriptive representation is a subset of his “lottery principle”).

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  3. Keith, I’m not sure that focusing upon descriptive representation would have helped. I was specifically asked to talk about the idea of allocating goods by lottery, not political offices, and descriptive representation (as opposed to impartiality) is not really that relevant to the former. Or do you believe otherwise?

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  4. No of course not, my point was that there is far greater opposition in the general public to (eg) schools lotteries than there is to political lotteries, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction of the panellists.

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  5. Actually, now that you have raised the question, I think descriptive representation is a pretty good proxy for fairness and at the same time it is a pretty good talking point for, say, school lotteries. It is probably an easy case to make that entrance exams discriminate in various ways against various minorities. Who could argue that, say, White children should be over-represented at good schools?

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  6. Well, the egalitarian literature is complex, and fairness comes in a variety of forms. When my son was at our village primary school, the headmaster took me to one side and suggested that he might be a little “simple”, “short of a few marbles” etc. But he worked very hard and managed to scrape into an independent school, where he worked even harder, got into Oxford and ended up with a First in engineering. Some would say that it’s unfair that he benefited from a privileged education but, if the enrolment for his school had been by lottery, I would argue that it would be very unfair if he was excluded and someone who had put in little effort was accepted. As for your last sentence, probably best if we leave race out of it.

    If you are going to argue that descriptive representation is a proxy for fairness, that takes you pretty close to Barbara Goodwin’s dystopian fantasy. So I’m not surprised the panellists from the Land of the Free reacted adversely to anything along these lines.

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  7. PS the principal difference between descriptive representation in political decision-making and the social-justice case for the lot is that in the former case descriptive representation is an end in itself, whereas in the latter case it is merely an indicator of a situation that would be deemed unjust by those who favour equality of outcome. Note that this variant of egalitarianism is a minority doctrine, that tends to be limited to old-school socialists and writers of dystopian fantasies. Most of us have a more robust view of the relationship between equality and merit, and espouse some variant of luck-, autonomy- or opportunity-egalitarianism.

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  8. I think the operative word here is “proxy.” This issue is at the heart of debates regarding equality of opportunity. Suppose you believe that university admissions should be made available according to merit, which reflects some combination of native ability, training, etc. And suppose you believe that native ability is not correlated with any demographic features (race, class, etc.). Then you would expect the students admitted–the “most meritorious”–to look like a randomly selected cross section of the population. If you didn’t see that, there would be a serious danger that something had gone wrong. Perhaps the instrument for measuring merit is biased. Or perhaps students from certain backgrounds were not getting the primary and secondary education they needed to acquire merit. (In other words, perhaps the world is the way it is right now.) But in principle, there could be “innocent” explanations for the lack of cross sectionality; there are surely disproportionately few Amish in American universities, but this reflects a cultural decision to maintain distance from the outside world. Note, however, that even if cross sectionality was obtained, the result would be VERY different from a process that simply randomly admitted students without any regard to merit.

    All of this is very fast, and glosses over a lot of difficult topics (like measuring “merit”) that I hope to address in future work.

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  9. BTW, how did you find the direct link to the show? I tried several times, but every option I tried resulted in the most recent show being posted, not the one featuring my “point.”

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  10. Yes – I agree. There are groups you could argue are under-represented for legitimate reasons, but in general unrepresentativeness is a good indicator of unfairness. Furthermore, this general line of argumentation is familiar to the public after decades of civil rights struggles. It can therefore be relatively easily deployed, unlike other lines of argumentation.

    The link is a link to the youtube page of the clip. The top result in a Google search for “the point young turks” is http://www.youtube.com/user/townsquare. Clicking on the “videos” tab on that page takes you to http://www.youtube.com/user/townsquare/videos. Clicking on the appropriate episode then takes you to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyGUyWkaZAY&feature=plcp, which is the link I used.

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  11. >in general unrepresentativeness is a good indicator of unfairness

    In the UK children from working-class families are far less likely to go to university than children from middle-class families — the Labour Government target of 50% of the age cohort has, for the most part, increased the intake from low-achieving middle class families. This is for a variety of reasons, including (apparently) the fear of the burden of student debt (it’s unclear why this fear should apply more to working-class families, given the repayment terms stipulated by the government), but also the different cultural expectations of the families involved. If a university degree is viewed as a valuable good (an increasingly dubious assumption) then this is clearly unfair to the disadvantaged children. But who’s fault is it — the Original Social Stratifier? I suppose this is a pertinent topic on this forum for those who take the argument of Barbara Goodwin’s book seriously, but I’m not sure of the relevance of sortition to this problem for those who do not advocate a radical redistribution of goods and opportunities along Aleatorian lines. This would mean that we now have three distinct lottery principles:

    1. Descriptive representation.
    2. Keeping the selection process impartial.
    3. “Social” justice via the random allocation of goods and services.

    It’s important to keep these three functions entirely separate — in the case of Yoram’s argument (2) does not apply (unless he is suggesting that the selection of the best candidates is “partial”), and (1) is merely a proxy for (3). Perhaps all threads should be tagged accordingly, in order that comments can be kept relevant.

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