Paul Graham on Inequality

One of the essays in Paul Graham's book Hackers and Painters discusses the inequality issue, an issue much on Pun Salad's mind lately. (For example, here, here, here, here, and here.) Graham's essay is is a refreshing change from the usual arguments seen from economists, philosophers, or political scientists. I'll quote the first four paragraphs:

When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There's a huge gap between Leonardo and second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A top-ranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once.

Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.

Why? The pattern of variation seems no different from any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money?

I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?

Graham makes a good case, pleasantly free of the sheen of apology in a lot of defenses of inequality. It makes (for example), Jacob Hacker's response essay at the Cato Unbound online magazine look a bit limp, to my mind.

Unfortunately, this essay is not one that's available at his website, so you'll have to pick up the book for the rest. The website does contain a different essay on the topic, also great, check it out.

Michigan vs. Yale in the Big Game

We recently remarked on the efficacy of a Harvard education toward one's ability to give nuanced and sophisticated commentary on current events. ("Censorship is bad."—Natalie Portman) Now comes one Alexis Surovov, Yale graduate, currently an advisor to the Yale Anglers Journal, and Assistant Director of the Annual Giving Programs at Yale Law School.

Alexis was incensed at the recent effort of Clinton Taylor urging protest of the admission to Yale of one Sayeed Rahmatullah, Taliban official. Specifically, Taylor suggested sending "glamorous, decadent, shameless-hussy-scarlet press-on nails" to the Yale Development Office and President as a reminder of the Taliban's policy of removing the fingernails of women who ventured to wear fingernail polish. (Or, sometimes, apparently not wanting to mess with the details of fingernail removal, taking a whole thumb.)

Alexis e-mailed Mr. Taylor anonymously:

What is wrong with you? Are you retarded? This is the most disgraceful alumni article that I have ever read in my life. You failed to mention that you've never contributed to the Yale Alumni Fund in your life. But to suggest that others follow your negative example is disgusting.
Unfortunately, the e-mail was easily traced back to Alexis, and now Yale has to deal with multiple embarrassments.

In contrast to the venerable realms of the Ivy League, one might expect that the University of Michigan would show even less respect to free expression. Via FIRE's Torch blog, we have the results of that experiment, as recounted by the editor in chief of the student paper, The Michigan Daily.

The problem was a number of editorial cartoons printed in the paper:

The most controversial of these cartoons portrayed a high school classroom full of dark-skinned students and one white student. At the front of the classroom, a black teacher tells the class that they can all expect special preferences when applying to college - except for Bob, the lone white student.
Somewhat predictably:
Student leaders, arguing that the cartoon was "objectively racist," demanded retractions and printed apologies. Later, a committee of the University's faculty senate even argued that it was potentially illegal - that the caricature of "an institutional policy favoring diversity" could, by encouraging a "racially hostile learning environment," violate federal equal-protection laws.
Some student newspapers when confronted with such a situation fold like a sleeping fruitbat. (Many more avoid such situations in the first place by avoiding content likely to cause such a response.) Fortunately, the editor has a spine:
In the interest of free debate, the Daily will continue to print cartoons that may occasionally offend you. That's an inevitable part of being a newspaper, and a campus newspaper especially should be a place where ideas are exchanged freely. It would be much easier for us to simply pull all cartoons that are potentially offensive, but we would be doing the campus a disservice.
Read the whole thing, it's an eloquent defense of free expression on the campus. It's especially recommended to readers at Harvard and Yale.