The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reasons & Beliefs

Robin Hanson had a post a couple of weeks ago asking people the question of whether they'd support redistributing GPA, in the same way most people support the redistribution of income; namely people in the top 10% or so would give some of their GPA to people in the bottom 10% or so. People were largely against GPA redistribution, though most people think that redistributing income is fine. Hanson's point was that people are naturally hypocritical because, though they support one rather than the other, they couldn't readily give reasons for this belief.

In fact, even if we look at it carefully, the difference is hard to find. People might think it's unfair to take GPA from someone since they earned it, but the same goes with money, since people who are wealthy have earned their wealth as well. One might respond that though many rich people earned their wealth, many of them were born into fortunate circumstances, such as being upper middle class or wealthy from their parents, and thus they didn't earn it. But then one just responds that since GPA is heavily influenced by intelligence, and intelligence is largely determined by innate ability which is unfairly distributed, you don't really earn your GPA either. If one then tried to respond that redistributing GPA would muck up the incentives, making high achieving students work less hard to get high marks (since their GPA will be taken away) and making poor students work less hard to pull themselves out of the bottom 10% (since they'll get free grades anyways). But the same applies to wealth redistribution, which will affect incentives in the same way.

The difference really comes around when we realize the different roles and different importance of the two: grades are primarily informational (they convey information about how much a student learned and how well they performed) and they're not really critical (you won't die without good grades); money on the other hand is a medium of exchange and a store of value and it is really critical in a market economy (without it you can't get food, clothing, shelter and thus potentially face death). These aren't perfect arguments and we could quibble about these differences too, but they're pretty good and get at the key differences: because wealth is essential for functioning in society (because of its role in the economy) then redistributing money is a much bigger help to those in the bottom 10% than redistributing GPA; one might even say redistributing wealth is necessary for people in dire need. The question is whether people who prefer the redistribution of wealth and not GPA are recognizing this difference and just unable to articulate it. Since understanding things you can't articulate is not unheard of, this is plausible.

I suspect though that this is not the reason that most people feel this way. I think it's rather the case that people feel (accurately or inaccurately) that they've earned their grades and that people who are wealthy haven't really earned their money; or perhaps they think that the unequal distribution of money is uniquely unfair (unlike other unequal distributions like say intelligence, physical attractiveness, athletic ability, height, thinness and so on); or perhaps they just assume that, since wealth redistribution is the norm whereas GPA redistribution isn't, that that's the way is should be (status quo bias). Any attempt to rationalize or explain such assumptions is going to be post hoc.

In short, we can believe that people have pretty good reasons that they can't articulate or believe (as I think more likely) that they simply have unquestioned assumptions they've never thought about (though if they're clever, they'll find good ways to rationalize them). The reason I lean to the latter is because I know that when I was younger I too, like most people supported the redistribution of wealth but wouldn't, if ever asked, have supported redistribution of GPA, and my beliefs have changed (not about redistribution of GPA) precisely because I started to think about these assumptions.

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